“Whichever is less”

I’ve done a few posts over the last couple of months about the lawfulness of the Minister of Finance’s decision to appoint an acting Governor of the Reserve Bank for six months after the expiry, just a couple of days after the election,  of Graeme Wheeler’s term.  As a reminder, I had several times argued that making a substantive five year appointment, to commence just after the election would be inappropriate –  indeed, as Treasury officials advised, it would also be inconsistent with the long-established conventions that govern behaviour in the period close to a general election.  As a further reminder, I have no particular concerns about Grant Spencer; if the appointment is lawful I’m sure he will mind the store capably until a permanent appointment is made by the incoming government.

This post was written on the day the acting appointment was announced, this one following responses to my OIA requests for information relevant to the appointment, and this one from last week on an appeal to the Ombudsman, on the grounds that the public interest (including because of the extent of the powers that rests with any appointee) should lead to the release of any legal advice the Minister, the Board, and officials received on the legality of the appointment.

And there I would have left it, with perhaps a repeat post the day Spencer took office.  My main concerns were about (a) the lack of transparency about an unusual appointment (even if it is lawful), and (b) about the importance of laws being followed, even if the legally questionable appointment was, on the face of it, quite a pragmatic response to the clash of dates (election, and end of Governor’s term).   But they weren’t necessarily points of general interest.

But then a reader got in touch.  The reader wasn’t sure, reading the legislation, whether or not Spencer’s appointment looked lawful, but pointed out that the Reserve Bank Act vests all the powers of the Bank in the Governor personally.  Thus, if there were doubts about the validity of the appointment of a Governor (or in this case an acting Governor), that would appear to raise doubts about the validiity, and potential enforceability, of any actions taken by the Bank during the term of the acting Governor.  That got my attention.

After all, the Governor wields a great deal of power.  He sets the OCR, he sets much of prudential regulatory policy, he authorises enforcement actions against regulated entities, and the Bank –  under his authority –  undertakes large volumes (and values) of financial transactions in domestic and international financial markets.  All delegations to staff are delegations directly from the Governor.   And those are just the routine activities of the Bank.  But a big part of why we have a Reserve Bank is about crisis management –  whether in foreign exchange markets, the economy more generally, or some or all parts of the financial system.   Many of the crisis powers rest with the Minister of Finance.   But many of the operational bits rest with the Bank, in which, as already noted, all powers are vested in the Governor.  That is what a single decisionmaker structure means.  It was a deliberate and conscious choice by Parliament.   Of course, in any particular six month period –  the term of the acting Governor – one hopes the crisis management powers aren’t needed at all.  But crises can flare up quickly, and the last thing one wants is doubts about the powers of the Bank, or the authority of those purporting to exercise such powers, in the middle of a crisis.  Let alone legal action afterwards seeking to invalidate some or all interventions by our central bank.

So I want to go slowly and carefully through the reasons why I think

a) it is not lawful for the Minister of Finance to appoint an acting Governor when the full term of a previous Governor has expired, and

b) why any defects in the appointment of a Governor/acting Governor appear to raise serious doubts about the validity and enforceability of any actions take by the Reserve Bank during the term of any acting Governor.

And I will suggest two possible practical solutions.

The Reserve Bank Act clearly allows for an acting Governor in some circumstances.

Section 47 of the Act allows for the case where the Governor is absent or incapacitated.   If the Governor is on holiday, or indeed seriously ill, the deputy chief executive can act automatically.  But if both the Governor and the deputy chief executive are absent or incapacitated, an acting Governor must be appointed by the Minister on the recommendation of the Board.    There is no limit to the term of such an appointment, although by implication –  since it is to cover an absence of an appointed Governor –  it could last no longer than the expiry of the Governor’s own term.    This section of the Act has never been used, and is not relevant to the current appointment.

Section 48 of the Act covers a vacancy in the office of Governor.    The key bits read as follows

If the office of Governor becomes vacant, the Minister shall, on the recommendation of the Board, appoint….[a person] to act as Governor for a period not exceeding 6 months or for the remainder of the Governor’s term, whichever is less.

The critical phrase here appears to be “whichever is less”.      When Don Brash resigned as Governor in April 2002, there was about sixteen months to run on his term.  The then Minister appointed Rod Carr to act as Governor.    He could be appointed for as long as six months, because there was still sixteen months to run on “the Governor’s term”.  By contrast, on 26 September this year there will be no days left on the Governor’s term.  Graeme Wheeler’s term will have expired at midnight the previous day.   So an acting Governor can only be appointed for…….. zero days, since there are no days left on “the Governor’s term”.  In other words, the Act simply does not appear to allow an acting Governor appointment along the lines of the (purported) Spencer appointment.

This is all consistent with the fact that the Act makes no provision for a Policy Targets Agreement with an acting Governor (it isn’t needed within a Governor’s term, since there is already a PTA in place), even though the PTA is central to the monetary policy parts of the Act,  and that the Act requires all new appointments of a Governor to begin with a five year term.   The Minister and the Board can’t just appoint someone for a succession of short terms –  no matter how well-intentioned the reason –  and thus compromise the effective independence of that person.

It is also, perhaps, worth noting that the previous (1964) Reserve Bank Act –  the one in place when the policy and drafting decisions on the current law were being made  –  also made no provision for the appointment of an acting Governor after the completion of a Governor’s term  (section 18 here ).  Under that legislation there could be an acting Governor only during the term of an appointed Governor (if the Governor and Deputy Governor were absent or incapacitated).  And Governors had to be appointed for five year terms.

In other words, the drafting looks conscious and deliberate.   The 1989 Act explicitly added provisions allowing for an acting Governor when the Governor resigned or died, leaving a vacancy during his term.  But the Bank’s legislation has never, in at least 50 years, allowed for an acting Governor to be appointed to commence after the end of the previous Governor’s term.  But that is what the Minister of Finance, on the recommendation of the Reserve Bank Board, purports to have done (the Minister having received no advice from the Board on the legality of such an appointment).

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.)

Perhaps some legal expert has an authoritative interpretation of these statutory provisions suggesting that

  • an appointment like that of Spencer is legal, and
  • even if there are any doubts, nonetheless there would be no basis to question the legality of the actions of the Bank during his term as “acting Governor”.

If so, surely they now owe it to us to release that advice, or even a summary of the argumentation that led the Minister to conclude that, under the existing statutory provisions, he could appoint Spencer as acting Governor.  Failure to do so appears to leave real doubt about the authority for any actions the Bank takes, or purports to take, during Spencer’s term.     It isn’t a remotely satisfactory situation for such a powerful agency, especially when –  since many routine decisions could simply be deferred –  a big part of the Bank’s responsibility is crisis management.  That uncertainty should unsettle financial market participants here and abroad, it should unsettle Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee (charged with monitioring the Bank), it should unsettle entities regulated by the Bank, and –  given the pervasive reach of many of the Bank’s powers –  it should unsettle citizens more generally.  It simply isn’t a satisfactory situation.

But it is a relatively easily remediable one.    The first option would have been simply to have offered Graeme Wheeler a six month extension on his term.  There are no restrictions on the term of any reappointment of the Governor.  It is a common way to deal with difficulties –  whether logistic or political/constitutional –  in appointing a new chief executive.     Had this option been taken there would have been no doubts about the invalidity of any of the Bank’s actions during that term.   We don’t know whether the Board/Minister refused to countenance another six months of Wheeler, or whether Wheeler simply wanted to be out as sooon as possible.  Given the legislative restrictions, and the election-related constraints, neither would –  on the face of it – seem to have been a particular responsible, public-spirited stance.  Presumably the Wheeler extension option is no longer available, but if it is it should be revisited urgently.

The second option would be for Parliament to act.  With the agreement of the Opposition parties it would be easy and quick to pass a single substantive clause amendment allowing for the appointment of an acting Governor to cover the period 26 September 2017 to 25 March 2018 (the period envisaged for the Spencer acting appointment).   In this case, the acting appointment is a pragmatic solution, but done without legal authority.  So don’t rush to change the legislation permanently –  it looks likely to be back in the House next year whoever wins the election –  but the acting “appointment” itself could easily be validated. It might be a little embarrasing to do so, but it would be a one day wonder, and a small price to avoid any doubts about Bank actions during the acting Governor period.

Of course, the other way would be to appoint Spencer to a five year term as Governor, on the implied expectation that he would resign after six months.   But that is how we got into this situation in the first place.  The conventions around election periods strongly discourage making substantive appointments to powerful public offices, when the appointee would take up the position close to, or shortly after, a forthcoming election.

(This is one of those issues on which I would really like to be wrong.   But I’m increasingly uncomfortable that an error was made by the Minister of Finance and the Bank’s Board.)

Grant Robertson made my day

In an address at Victoria University at lunchtime, Labour’s finance spokesperson Grant Robertson launched his party’s monetary policy reform programme.   In an interesting move, the incoming Acting Governor, Grant Spencer, who would have to manage (for the Bank) the early stages of Robertson’s reform process if Labour leads the new government, attended, sitting very visibly in the front row.

The two main aspects of Labour proposal are:

  • broadening the objective from just price stability “to also include a commitment to full employment”
  • changing the decision-making structure for monetary policy, so that a committee would have legislated responsibility.  That committee would comprise four internals (including the Governor) and three external experts who would be appointed by the Governor (but in consultation with the Minister of Finance).

Labour would also require the Bank to release the minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee, including the results of any votes, within three weeks of the relevant OCR decision being announced.

I was interested to note a press release from the Greens in which they state

Labour plans to change the way we do monetary policy in New Zealand and the Green Party supports them fully. We’re now of a single mind on this.

The Greens have previously favoured the Reserve Bank Board –  whose members are mostly non-experts –  making OCR decisions, so I’m not clear if the “single mind” James Shaw refers to extends to that level of detail, or just to a shared commitment to (a) reform, and (b) a decision-making committee that would involve non-executive outsiders.

Bill Rosenberg of the CTU and I were discussants following Robertson’s address.   I wrote this morning a fuller version than I could use of my thoughts on the Labour proposal.

Reflections on Grant Robertson on the RB VUW 10 April 2017

I opened observing that when I got an outline late last week of what Robertson was going to say, I had blurted out that “Grant Robertson has just made my day”.  I’ve been arguing for governance reform for at least 15 years, and between the report the Minister of Finance has commissioned, and the shared commitment to reform of the Greens and now Labour, it looks as though change might finally happen.   There was a certain logic to the current single decision-maker system in 1989, but if it had a logic then –  in how we understood monetary policy, and the nature of the Bank’s functions –  it simply looks wrong today.  Other countries don’t do things that way.  We don’t either in other areas of public life.

What I’m most encouraged by is the commitment to involve outsiders, not just to cement-in a position for insiders.  Having said that,  I raised two main areas of concern:

  • the first is the Robertson proposal that the Governor should continue to be (in effect) appointed by the Board (in turn appointed by the current government), and that all the other voting members (inside and out) would be appointed by the Governor.  He qualifies this by noting that these appointments would be made in consultation with the Minister of Finance.    But that is a recipe that risks the Governor surrounding him or herself, deliberately or unconsciously, with people who think like the Governor, and will be reluctant to challenge the Governor too much.   The Minister might raise a few questions about a proposed appointee, but will be reluctant to second guess the Governor, and cannnot overrule him in this model.   Frankly, it is a model with a yawning democratic chasm and not a model I’m aware of being used in any other country.  It is one thing to delegate operational decisions to independent boards, but the members of those Boards should be appointed by those whom we elect –  ministers –  and whom we can toss out.
  • the second concern is that under the proposed model there would be four insiders and three outsiders.  That is the wrong way round, and most likely would be a recipe for the marginalisation of the outsiders (since the insiders have no independent status, and all work for, and have their pay etc set by the Governor, they can easily caucus and out-vote the externals).   I’d prefer two internals and three externals, all directly appointed by the Minister of Finance.

In response, Robertson noted that he was open to looking again at the ministerial appointment option.  He noted that it was awkward as putative Minister to be talking of giving himself such extensive appointment powers.  Perhaps, but that is the way most public sector boards work.  If he wants Labour precedent, Gordon Brown introduced the Bank of England statutory Monetary Policy Committee, to which the Chancellor appoints most of the members directly, and has to be consulted on the remaining two.

Robertson explained that he preferred to keep a majority of insiders because one of his priorities was to preserve the operational independence of the Bank. I was, and am, puzzled by that response. I noted to him that the RBA has a substantial majority of outsiders on its decision-making Board, and that they had operational independence.  The same goes for Sweden’s Riksbank.  I’m less optimistic about a re-think there, as Robertson also stated that he did not envisage allowing MPC members to make speeches or comments on monetary policy without the explicit prior consent of the Governor.  It seems he still has in mind an excessively Governor-dominated institution, and one in which it would be hard to ensure transparecny and the regular injection of fresh perspectives and alternative views.  If so, that would be unfortunate.

I noted some unease about his proposal that all the external appointees would be “expert”, and perhaps had that concern somewhat allayed when he stressed that in this context he did not intend “expert” to mean simply a narrow expert in specific aspects of monetary economics or the like.

My other main observation in this area is that the Labour proposal (deliberately and consciously) does not yet address the governance and decisionmaking for the Bank’s extensive financial regulatory functions.

But the most important omission seems to me to be the governance provisions for the Reserve Bank’s extensive financial stability and regulatory functions, under various different pieces of legislation.   There is no precedent anywhere for so much regulatory power to be in one person’s hands.  It wasn’t even an outcome that was consciously deliberated on by Parliament –  rather it grew up with a succession of amendments to the Act, and changes in regulatory philosophy over the years. And whereas a regulating Cabinet minister can be reshuffled or dumped whenever the Prime Minister chooses, a Governor of the Reserve Bank is secure for five years.

If individuals matter in monetary policy, even with something like the PTA, they are likely to matter hugely in the financial regulatory area, where there is nothing like the PTA to constrain or guide the Bank/Governor.  The economic impact of regulatory choices can be as large –  if less visible –  than those around monetary policy.  I really hope that Labour will be thinking hard about how to extend their governance reform ideas into the financial regulatory field.  Personally I think there should be three strands to that:

  • Removing some of the high level policy-setting power back to the Minister of Finance (so that the RB applies the rules etc and mostly doesn’t make the high level rules),
  • Move responsibility for the various pieces of legislation out of the Reserve Bank, probably to Treasury. This matter is already being touched in the Rennie review commissioned by the current Minister of Finance, and
  • Establishing a Financial Policy Committee, paralleling the Monetary Policy Committee, as the entity empowered to exercise whatever policymaking powers reside with the Reserve Bank. Again, a five-person committee (Governor, Deputy Governor, and three externals seems like a feasible solution).  The FPC would also be responsible for Financial Stability Reports.

Robertson acknowledged the deliberate omission and talked of it being “part of the conversation” moving forward.  I hope so.    This is the opportunity for a full overhaul of the governance model, not just tacking on an MPC to a model that doesn’t work that well in other areas either.

The other half of the address was about the idea of adding full employment to the goals for monetary policy.  I was (and am) much more sceptical, and nothing that was said in response to questions really clarified things much.    I get that full employment is an historical aspiration of the labour movement, and one that the Labour Party wants to make quite a lot of this year.  In many respects I applaud that.  I’m often surprised by how little outrage there is that one in 20 of our labour force, ready to start work straight away, is unemployed.  That is about two years per person over a 45 year working life.  Two years……     How many readers of this blog envisage anything like that for themselves or their kids?

But still the question is one of what the role of monetary policy is in all this, over and above what is already implied by inflation targeting (ie when core inflation is persistently  below target then even on its own current terms monetary policy hasn’t been well run, and a looser monetary policy would have brought the unemployment rate closer to the NAIRU (probably now not much above 4 per cent)).

I noted that I’m sceptical that the wording of section 8 of the RB Act is much to blame.  After all, for several years prior to the recession, our unemployment rate was not just one of the lowest in the OECD, it was also below any NAIRU estimates.  And when I checked this morning, I found that our unemployment rate this century has averaged lower than those of Australia, Canada, the US and the UK, and our legislation hasn’t changed in that times.  Robertson often cites Australia and the US.

The last few years haven’t been so good relatively speaking.  But if the legislation hasn’t changed and the (relative) outcomes have, that suggests it is the people in the institution who made a mistake –  they used the wrong mental model and were slow to recognise their error and respond to it.  Getting the right people, and a well-functioning organisation, is probably more important than tweaking section 8.

Robertson disputed my past characterisation (as “virtue signalling”) of his talk of adding a full employment objective.  But I still don’t see in what way I am wrong in that description.  It would send a single to key constituencies that Labour “feels the pain” and has an integrated commitment to advancing full employment, but what difference would it make to the Governor and his committee?  There wouldn’t be a numerical definition of full employment in the PTA, and since Robertson remains committed to the accountability framework of the Act, it is very hard to see how or why any given Governor would react much differently given a specific inflation target and a vague injunction to promote “full employment”.  A different Governor might make a difference –  hence, choose carefully –  but that sort of wording is unlikely to.

If they form a government later in the year, Labour (and the Greens) clearly will need to add some words to the PTA.  I drew the attention of those present to the 1950 amendment to the Reserve Bank Act, under which

[The Bank] shall do all such things within the limits of its powers as it deems necessary or desirable to promote and safeguard a stable internal price level and the highest degree of production, trade, and employment that can be achieved by monetary action.

I quite like it (and not just because a relative of mine was the responsible Minister of Finance).  It recognises that monetary policy doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that people (voters and politicians) care about other stuff.  In fact we don’t pursue price stability simply for its own sake, but for a better life for New Zealanders. But note the key phrase  “the highest degree of…employment that can be achieved by monetary action”.  That might not be much, at least once the unemployment rate is back near the NAIRU.

As today’s chair –  economic historian Gary Hawke –  noted the 1950 change was largely about signalling too, and it isn’t obvous it made an awfully large difference to actual monetary policy.  But that was my point.  If you want words –  or signals – it is easy enough to craft elegant formulations that express those aspirations, and even articulate a place for monetary policy in overall economic management. It is a quite different thing to expect a central bank, however governed, with a single instrument capable only of affecting nominal variables in the longer-run, to make much material difference over time in achieving the wider –  and laudable –  government goal of full employment.

Politically, it doesn’t help at all to make that distinction.  But analytically it looks pretty clear.  Well-crafted words –  a modern version of that 1950 formulation –  would do no harm, and I’d have no real problem  with them, but they won’t make much substantive difference either. But sometimes, I guess, symbols matter quite a lot.

Joyce requests review of Reserve Bank governance structure

Some will have seen Hamish Rutherford’s Stuff article reporting on the review the Minister of Finance has commissioned (to be undertaken by former State Services Commissioner, and former Treasury deputy secretary  responsible for macroeconomics,) Iain Rennie) on two aspects of Reserve Bank governance:

  • whether something like the existing internal committee in which the Governor makes his OCR decisions should be formalised in legislation, and
  • whether the Reserve Bank should remain the “owner” of the various pieces of legislation (RB Act, as well as the insurance and non-bank legislation) it operates under.

This is very welcome news.  As I noted in a post a couple of months ago on governance issues,  Steven Joyce has previously been on-record less averse than some to changing the model.

 

Who knows if the new Minister of Finance is interested, but flicking through some old posts, I was encouraged to find one from September 2015, reporting an exchange in the House between then Associate Minister of Finance Steven Joyce and the Greens then finance spokesperson Julie Anne Genter.  In response to a question on governance, Joyce responded

Hon STEVEN JOYCE : The suggestion that the member makes, of having a panel of people making the decision, is, I have to say, not the silliest suggestion in monetary policy we have heard from the Greens over the years, and many countries—

A backhanded dig at the Greens at one level, but not an outright dismissal by any means.

And with the Governor confirming that he is leaving in September, and a year now until a permanent new Governor is in place, it is good time to have such a review, so as to be open to the possibility of reform, including in discussion with potential candidates for Governor.   Treasury tried to interest the previous Minister of Finance in legislative reform before Graeme Wheeler was appointed, but were knocked back (even though Treasury had found support for reform from market economists).   Graeme Wheeler also sought to initiate reform –  legislating for his Governning Committee –  in 2013 (although he still keeps all the relevant papers hush-hush), and was also knocked back by the Minister of Finance.  So, I’m encouraged that Steven Joyce has initiated the review.

That said, it is a pretty small step.  Iain Rennie will bring some relevant background to the issue, although his track record as State Services Commissioner might not command much confidence in circles other than those who appointed him.  And the Minister of Finance is not committing the National Party to supporting change.  But with almost all other political parties favouring change, and Rennie likely to point out the simple fact that no other New Zealand public sector entity is governed the way the Reserve Bank is (all power formally in one official’s hands), and no other central bank and financial regulatory agency in other advanced countries puts so much power (monetary policy and banking etc regulation) in one person’s hand, it is likely to set in place momentum leading towards some legislative reform next year.

I spoke to Rutherford about this yesterday and am quoted in the article

Michael Reddell, a former special advisor to the Reserve Bank who says he sat on a committee on OCR decisions for 20 years, said formalising the current structure would make only a marginal difference, as the members all reported to the governor.

“If your pay and rations are determined by the governor, then the extent that you’re willing to stand up is questionable, particularly to a tyrannical governor,” Reddell said.

“If the minister [of finance] were appointing the people on the committee, it would be a material step forward.”

All three Governors who have operated under the current legislation have operated pretty collegially.  For a long time, the OCR Advisory Group (OCRAG) was the forum in which the Governor took formal written advice and recommendation, and then made his decision (I was part of that group for a long time).  Mostly his decision was in line with the (usually) clear-cut majorities of advice.  All members of that committee were appointed by the Governor, including two external advisers.   The current Governor has put in another layer of hierarchy, taking advice from a wider group and then making his decision in a smaller group (him, his two deputies and the chief economist).

I should stress that the reference to “tyrannical” Governors was not intended as a reflection on anyone who has served as Governor.    But you need to design institutions around poor or insecure Governors: good ones will want, and will encourage, debate and alternative perspectives.  Poor ones will squash it, and if they control all the members of the statutory committee, it offers little or no protection  –  and actually puts monetary policy decisionmakers at a further remove from the voters and Minister of Finance.   As I’ve argued previously, we need more involvement of the Minister in appointing monetary policy (and financial regulation) decisionmakers, and also need external perspectives brought into the process, in the form of full formal participation in the decisionmaking.  As, for example, it is in Australia, Canada, the UK, the US, Sweden and so on.

Rutherford’s report doesn’t say whether the Rennie review will also look at the formal decisionmaking structure for financial regulation.  Those issues will have to be considered in any legislative reform, and it is probably more important to get collective and external decisionmaking processes formalised, since in these areas the Bank does not operate to something like the PTA, but rather exercises huge amounts of barely-fettered discretion.

The second half of the review –  looking at whether the Bank should stay responsible for its legislation – is not one of the (long list) of reform issues I’ve focused on.  It will probably have many people at the Reserve Bank spitting tacks, and looking at all sorts of bureaucratic tactics to retain something as close as possible to the status quo.  I favour change (but will openly acknowledge that until perhaps the last five years I had the same insider hubris that affects many RBers –  a belief that “we are different” and no one else in positioned to do the legislation-ownership role well).  That is simply wrong –  and if the expertise isn’t there right now, it could be developed over time (probably in Treasury) without too much difficulty.  Again, it would bring the Reserve Bank into line with other Crown entity types of bodies, few (if any) of which are now responsible for their own legislation (altho in years gone by some important ones –  eg ACC – were).  It might seem to many readers like an “inside the Beltway” issues, that doesn’t really matter to citizens.  That would be a mistaken view.  Reform in this area is just one part of the overall agenda to improve the accountability of the now very-powerful Reserve Bank, and bring its goverance more into line with that for other Crown agencies, and with central banks and financial regulatory agencies abroad.

And so for the second time this week, I commend Steven Joyce.  It is only an unambitious start, but the start matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appointing an Acting Governor: what the documents show

I had an email the other day suggesting that I should reduce my coverage of Reserve Bank issues.  No doubt the topic isn’t that interesting to that particular reader, but the main criterion for coverage here is what I’m interested in, and as I noted in response I’m interested in Reserve Bank issues, know something about them, and am fortunate to be much less constrained in what I can say than many other economists (often employed by entities the Reserve Bank regulates).   (As it happens, for any Wellington readers interested in monetary policy issues, I will be speaking briefly as a discussant responding to a presentation by Grant Robertson at Victoria University next Monday lunchtime.)

Which is by way of introducing a post which may not be of great interest to some readers.

For much of the time this blog has been running I had been pointing out, every few months, that the Governor’s term was due to expire almost three years to the day since the last election, and thus any replacement would normally be taking up the role right in the middle of a possible change of government.   As the Governor is the most powerful unelected public official in New Zealand, and there is currently no political consensus on monetary policy and Bank issues, it seemed inappropriate for the current government to be making an appointment to take effect just around the time of the election, materially tying the hands of a possible alternative government.     I’d suggested asking the current Governor, Graeme Wheeler, to stay on for, say, one more year (it was widely understood that Wheeler was not seeking a second full term).     There would have been no doubt about the lawfulness of that option, and had he been offered and accepted such an extension there would have been a new Policy Targets Agreement signed, as the Act provides.  Ever since 1990, the PTA has been the centrepiece of monetary policy arrangements in New Zealand, and the benchmark against which the Governor’s performance is to be assessed.

On 7 February, the Minister of Finance announced that (a) Graeme Wheeler would leave office at the end of his term, and (b) that because of the election the current Deputy Governor Grant Spencer would be appointed acting Governor for six months, allowing a permanent appointment to be made under whichever government takes office after the election.  It was also confirmed that Spencer would not seek appointment as permanent Governor.

In my post that day I welcomed the fact that the Board and the Minister had recognised the significance of the issue around the election, and raised no concerns about Spencer personally (he was my boss for two periods earlier in my career and I always got on well with him).   But I raised questions about whether such an appointment was lawful, under the terms of the Reserve Bank Act.

The Act allows for the appointment of an acting Governor –  and it has been done once before, when Don Brash resigned with immediate effect to go into politics –  but it appeared to provide for such an appointment only to cover a vacancy that arises during a Governor’s term, not to allow the Minister and Board to delay making a substantive appointment at the end of a Governor’s term (such an option would increase potential  political leverage over the Bank).     Consistent with that reading of the law is (a) that the Act makes no provision for agreeing a PTA with an Acting Governor (in a case like that when Rod Carr temporarily replaced Don Brash there was already a PTA is place –  which there will not legally be once Graeme Wheeler leaves office) and (b) that the PTA plays such a central role in the governance provisions around monetary policy (even in the event of a ministerial override of the Bank, a new PTA still needs to be put in place quickly.    But, technically, Grant Spencer will be conducting monetary policy with no PTA, and thus no (formal) checks and balances.

I was curious about (a) how this appointment came to be, and (b) how confident officials and ministers were of their legal ground.  So I lodged OIA requests with the Bank’s Board, with the Minister of Finance, and with the Treasury.   I didn’t really expect them to release the legal advice each agency might have obtained (although the Ombudsman has made clear that legal advice is not always absolutely protected, and (eg) this isn’t a matter of contractural dispute etc) but I assumed that the insights from that advice would be reflected in the policy advice and analysis that officials provided.

The Reserve Bank was about as obstructive as ever.   It took them seven weeks to release a single two paragraph document, the short letter from the Board chair to the Minister recommending the appointment of Spencer as Acting Governor.     There is no mention at all in that letter of the legal issues, not even a specific reference to the provision of the Act governing acting Governor appointments.  Clearly, and perhaps not unexpectedly, a lot else had been going on behind the scenes.

I had asked for

copies of all papers of the Reserve Bank Board relating to the end of Graeme Wheeler’s term as Governor, the process for appointing a permanent replacement, and the appointment of Grant Spencer as acting Governor.   This request includes papers on the Board’s agenda, minutes of relevant discussions, papers/letters sent to the Minister of Finance or Treasury, and filenotes of any relevant meetings.

The Board’s response suggested that the only other relevant material was (a) some advice from the Bank’s Human Resources, and (b) some internal legal advice.

It is simply incredible that there are no minutes of the Board meeting (even if it was just a teleconference) at which they made the recommendation to the Minister of Finance, and highly unlikely (as we shall see) that there are no minutes of earlier discussions, or even email filenotes of discussions that, for example, the Board chair might have had with the Minister of Finance on the forthcoming appointment.    If any of this is written down, it was covered by my request.  And if it is not written down, it might be operationally smart in the short-term (bureaucrats often say to each other, “be careful what you put in writing”) but it is particularly poor governance.  Both the head of the Prime Minister’s Department and the Ombudsman have been explicit that the provisions of the Official Information Act don’t justify taking a slapdash approach to documenting advice, decisions etc.

As I’ve come to expect, there was a much more helpful and fuller response from the Treasury.  It took some time, but there was 63 pages of material.    They haven’t yet put the response on their website – I’ll link to it when they do, and if anyone wants the material sooner just email me.

I won’t bore readers by attempting to step through every paper, but what is clear is how late in the piece the decision was made to go the Acting Governor route, and that credit for that decision goes to the new Minister of Finance Steven Joyce.

The first papers are from August last year.  At that point, Treasury was aware that the expiry of the Governor’s term would fall in the period not far from the likely date of the 2017 election.  They didn’t seem to see the issue as a substantive one, and advised the Secretary to the Treasury that it might just mean that the appointment of a new Governor should be announced quite early (eg May 2017), which  in turn would mean the Board would have to begin the search process relatively early.

A month or so later they were specifically highlighting the convention under which governments are quite restrained in making significant appointments in the three months prior to the election. By this time, it is clear from the documents that the Bank’s Board was already actively planning their search and recommendation process.  Treasury note that it would be desirable to have an appointment announced by the end of May, but to do that a recommendation from the Board would have to be available by early-mid April, but “their current timeframe is to provide a recommendation to the Minister in May”.

By mid November, Treasury had taken formal advice from Cabinet Office, whose “legal and constitutional adviser” informed them that simply announcing an appointment early would not get around the pre-election conventions.  What mattered was the effective date of the appointment, not when it was announced.    That prompted an approach to staff in the Minister’s office highlighting the potential problem.  They note that one way around it would be to extend the current Governor’s term, or appoint an acting Governor for six months, but there is no discussion of whether the Act really allows for that latter option. (The other option was simply to barge ahead and make an appointment anyway, with or without consultation with opposition parties).

On 29 November, the Minister of Finance (still Bill English) held a meeting with Neil Quigley, chair of the Reserve Bank Board.  Treasury provided a briefing note.  It noted that “the Board is running the process….we understand that the recommended candidate for your consideration will be provided in May 2017” but flagged the issue around the pre-election period, and noted the possible options (as above).  Suggesting that they still hadn’t looked that carefully at the details of the legislation, they advised the Minister that a new PTA would be required, even if an acting Governor was appointed.

Among the documents is a note for the new Minister of Finance, which was in the end not sent.  But it states that “the previous Minister of Finance met with Professor Quigley on 29 November 2016 and indicated comfort with the Board continuing their appointment process as outlined to him”, and noted that Treasury had no further advice planned on this appointment.

Things seemed to move quite quickly from late December.  In a 20 December note to Gabs Makhlouf, staff pass on reactions to the news that “Hon. Joyce might look to delay the appointment of a new RBNZ Governor until after the election”

Staff themselves remain “neutral” about such an approach –  it is not at all clear what credible alternatives they saw there as being –  but noted the need to engage the Board quite quickly, noting “the Board’s original plan was to put out a job advertisement in late January, the Board has already engaged headhunters, and the previous Minister had signalled a preference for proceeding to appoint a new Governor next year”.

Christmas holidays intervene, and the next paper is a briefing for the Minister in advance of a 20 January meeting with Neil Quigley, which again notes the options of extending the current Governor’s term or appointing an acting Governor for six months (again, incorrectly noting that either option would require a new PTA).  Even at that meeting, the Minister does not appear to have communicated a decision, as there is then a (not very informative) note suggesting another discussion on the issue with Treasury officials on 24 January.   Only by 1 February is there a formal Treasury report providing the information to facilitate the Minister’s preference to appoint Grant Spencer as Acting Governor (which, according to the paper, had not yet been discussed between Spencer and the Minister).  Only at this point is Treasury uncertain about the PTA position, noting that they were seeking Crown Law advice.

It all went to Cabinet on 7 February –  with no hint of any issue as to whether an acting Governor could legally be appointed –  and was announced later that day.

I’m not usually a big fan of Steven Joyce, but as far as I can tell from these papers (and a very similar set I got from his office) he is the only one to emerge from this process deserving credit.  The Bank’s Board had seemed to see no problem at all in making an appointment pre-election to take office in the midst of a possible change of government.  The Treasury didn’t either –  they would have been happy, if they could, simply to have had an appointment announced early.  And as late as the end of November, the then Minister of Finance (now Prime Minister) was apparently happy to carry on towards appointing the most powerful public official to take office just (as it turns out) a few days after the election.    It was only very late in the piece that Treasury realised that there was no provision for a PTA with an acting Governor (Crown Law presumably confirmed that, as there will be no PTA with Spencer) and there is no sign that any officials ever seriously considered whether an acting Governor appointment was strictly legal.

But shortly after taking office, Joyce seemed to cut through most of this, eventually presumably instructing/requesting the Board not to proceed with the planned process that had already begun, and instead to recommend him an acting Governor appointee.   In a sense (whatever the formal legalities) they were lucky to find Spencer willing –  I have heard that he was planning to have left the Bank by now.

To repeat, my concern isn’t that something will go badly wrong in the six months Grant is in charge.  It is a practical solution to a problem that is made so severe by the fact that so much power is vested in one person’s hands.  That should be changed by whoever becomes the Minister of Finance after the election (and the role of the Board in making appointments should also be revisited).   But the practical outcome they have adopted still looks rather dubious on legal grounds, and we are supposed to be ruled by laws, not by what is opportune.   I’m not a lawyer, and some of the doubt could have been resolved if the Board and Treasury had pro-actively released any legal advice they obtained on the points, but it doesn’t look clear-cut that the chosen path was strictly lawful.

And perhaps as concerning is that key figures – including the current Prime Minister –  saw no problem in an outgoing government making a long-term appointment to such a powerful position, to take office in the midst –  or immediately after –  an election campaign, especially one where there is the potential for material changes of policy emphasis and legislation in areas directly the responsibility of the Governor.

 

 

Reforming the Reserve Bank

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on where the Labour Party seemed to be going on monetary policy, informed by Alex Tarrant’s interest.co.nz article on his conversations with Grant Robertson.  It all seemed to amount to not very much –  wording changes to make explicit an interest in the labour market (employment/unemployment), but without much reason to think it would make much difference to anything of substance.  My suggestion was that there was a distinct whiff of virtue-signalling about it.   And the sort of change Robertson seemed interested in on the governance front  –  legislating the position of in-house technocrats –  seemed unlikely to be much of a step forward at all.

Last week, interest.co.nz had a piece on the same issues by former Herald economics editor Brian Fallow, also benefiting from an interview with Robertson.   Fallow pushes a bit harder.  His summary is that

The changes Labour proposes to make to the monetary policy framework sit somewhere between cosmetic and perilous, but closer to the former.

Cosmetic for the sorts of reasons I’ve outlined.  On the one hand, the Bank has always taken the labour market into account as one indicator of excess capacity.  And on the other hand, plenty of pieces of overseas central banking legislation refer to employment/unemployment somewhere, but there is little evidence that the central banks in those countries have run monetary policy much differently, on average over time, than the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has.

Robertson’s response is pretty underwhelming.

Asked how much difference the regime he advocates would have made, had it been in place in the past, he said, “In the very immediate past, not that much, truthfully. But there have been other times in our history, and there have been other examples around the world, when lower interest rates could have helped to reduce unemployment.”

If he was serious about this making a difference, he’d surely be able to quote chapter and verse.  When, where and how does he think it would have made a difference?

He is, however, clearly tantalised by the current situation

Even now, “Are we satisfied as a country that with 3.5% growth 5.2% unemployment is okay?”

Given that the Treasury thinks our NAIRU is nearer 4 per cent, I don’t think we should be content.  But Robertson has spent so long over the last few years defending Graeme Wheeler that he can’t quite bring himself, even now, to suggest that monetary policy could have been conducted better in the last five years, whether on the current mandate or something a little different.

If the proposed change isn’t cosmetic, Fallow worries that it could be perilous.  Why?  Because when he pushes Robertson he gets a more explicit –  and more concerning –  answer than the one Alex Tarrant got.

He has told interest.co.nz’s Alex Tarrant that he was not going to tell the Reserve Bank whether one objective is more important than the other.

Talking to me, however, he said that ultimately the bank would remain independent. “But if unemployment starts to get out of control I would expect in that environment it says ‘At this time we are preferencing that and we are going to lower rates by a greater percentage than we might have’.”

In the event of a stagflation scenario he would expect it to focus more on the falling output and employment side of the dilemma and to ease.

“I think the setting of a clear direction here is what is important.”

In short Robertson seems to be saying that if Parliament were to change the statute, the message to the bank would be when in doubt err on the side of stimulus.

If unemployment is prioritised by the Reserve Bank in such circumstances, it is a recipe for inflation getting away.  In the medium-term, monetary policy can really only affect nominal variables (inflation, price level, nominal GDP or whatever), it simply can’t affect real variables.  Using monetary policy to pursue such goals directly is a risky prescription.  I wouldn’t want to overstate the issue –  New Zealand isn’t heading for hyperinflation – but part of reason we and other countries ended up with persistently high inflation in the 1970s is that too much weight was placed on unemployment in setting monetary policy.  Getting inflation back down again was costly –  including in terms of increased unemployment.  On a smaller scale, as Fallow highlights, the desire to “give growth a chance” was part of what was behind the monetary policy misjudgements of 2003 to 2006, when monetary policy wasn’t tight enough.

Robertson’s words suggest he still hasn’t thought the issues through very deeply or carefully.  For now, I’m sticking with the “cosmetic” or virtue-signalling interpretation of what Labour is on about.   And I’m still uncomfortable at the lack of command of the issues and experience in someone who aspires to be Minister of Finance later this year.

But yesterday, a mainstream economist came out in support of more or less the direction Robertson is proposing.  In his youth Peter Redward spent a few years at the Reserve Bank, and then spent time in various roles, including at Barclays and Deutsche Bank, before returning to New Zealand and establishing his own economic and financial markets advisory firm.  He focuses on emerging Asian foreign exchange markets, but keeps a keen eye on monetary policy developments in New Zealand.

In his short piece at Newsroom, Peter Redward says It’s time for a Reserve Bank change.  He notes of the last few years that

Whether Governor Wheeler consciously aimed for a hawkish interpretation of the Act, or not, we may never know. But hawkish he’s been, leading to tighter monetary conditions than were necessary, boosting the New Zealand dollar and confining thousands of New Zealanders to needless unemployment.

And argues that

…maybe it’s time to adopt a dual mandate in the Act. One possibility is the dual mandate of the U.S. Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve has a two percent inflation target but it also targets ‘maximum employment’. Economists have differing interpretations of ‘maximum employment’ so it acts as a constraint, and that’s the point.

While no one knows exactly where ‘maximum employment’ in New Zealand is, I believe most economists would agree that it’s likely to be consistent with an unemployment rate somewhere around 4.5 percent (give or take 0.25 percent). If the Reserve Bank had a dual mandate, its elevated level would have acted to constrain the bank’s aborted tightening of policy in 2009 and 2014.

I’m very sympathetic to his critique of Graeme Wheeler’s stewardship of monetary policy, and highlighted in numerous of my own commentaries, after it became apparent that the 2014 OCR increases had been an unnecessary mistake, the Governor’s apparent indifference to an unemployment rate that remained well above any estimates of a NAIRU.

But I remain a bit more sceptical than Peter appears to be about how much difference a re-specified mandate might have made.  As I’ve argued before, past Reserve Bank research suggests that faced with the sorts of shocks New Zealand experienced, policymakers at the Fed, the RBA and the Bank of Canada would have responded much the same way as the Reserve Bank of New Zealand did.  That work was done for periods prior to 2008/09 –  for most of the time since then the Fed was at or very near the lower bound on interest rates, so the game was a bit different –  but it isn’t clear that the specification of the target has been the problem in New Zealand in the last few years.  After all, simply on inflation grounds alone the Reserve Bank hasn’t done well.

Here is a chart of the Reserve Bank’s unemployment rate projections from the March 2014 MPS, the occasion when they started raising the OCR.

2014 U projections.png

The second observation is the last actual data they had –  the unemployment rate for the December 2013 quarter.  So when they started the tightening cycle they thought the unemployment would be falling quite considerably that year, before levelling out around what they thought of as something near what they must have thought of as the practical NAIRU  (this was before last year’s revisions to the HLFS which lowered unemployment rates, and NAIRU estimates, for the last few years).    The problem then wasn’t that they didn’t care about unemployment, it is that they got their forecasts –  particular as regards inflation –  badly wrong.  It isn’t clear why a different target specification would have altered the policy judgement at the time.

Perhaps it would have done so once it became apparent that the OCR increases hadn’t really been necessary, but a stubborn refusal by the Governor to concede mistakes, even with hindsight, plus a mindset firmly focused on how “extraordinarily stimulatory” monetary policy allegedly was –  when no one had any real idea what a neutral interest rate might be in the current environment, and when inflation stubbornly didn’t rise much if at all –  seem more likely explanations.    The Bank kept forecasting that inflation would rise and unemployment would fall –  the jointly desired outcomes.

(And if one looks at the Bank’s forecasts in mid 2010, when they made the previous unnecessary start on tightening, one gets much the same picture –  forecasts of falling unemployment and rising inflation, that simply didn’t happen.)

So why should we supposed that a different specification of the target would have made much difference to how policy was set?  We had an institution that was misreading things, in a political climate where no one seemed much bothered by the unemployment rate holding up, and where for a long time financial markets endorsed the approach taken by the Reserve Bank (often more enthusiastic for future tightenings than even the Governor and his advisers were).   Getting something closer to the right model of the world (for the times), and quickly learning from one’s mis-steps, seem likely to matter more than the words of the Act in this area.

As I’ve said repeatedly here, I’m not firmly opposed to amending the relevant clauses of the Reserve Bank Act to mention the desirability of things like a low unemployment rate.  But even the Federal Reserve Act makes clear that good monetary policy focused on a nominal target creates a climate consistent with high employment.  High employment isn’t a goal for the Federal Reserve is supposed to pursue directly, even if –  all else equal –  a high unemployment rate relative to an (uncertain) NAIRU is a useful indicator that something might be wrong with monetary policy settings. It isn’t clear there is anything much to gain from such amendments –  or that they are where the real issues regarding the Reserve Bank are – but sometimes perhaps virtue needs to be signalled?    My own concrete suggestion in this area would be to require the Reserve Bank to publish, every six months, its own estimates of the NAIRU and to explain the reasons for the deviations of actual unemployment from the NAIRU, how quickly that gap could be expected to close, and the contribution of monetary policy to the evolution of the gap.

Brian Fallow’s article suggested that Labour still hasn’t settled on how to reform the governance of the Reserve Bank.

Robertson is non-committal at this stage on the composition of a monetary policy committee to take interest rate decisions, including to what extent it should include members from outside the bank.

Peter Redward has a more specific proposal for him.

What’s needed is a formal Monetary Board complete with published minutes and, released after a grace period, transcripts of the meeting and the voting record of members. In a recent speech, U.S. Federal Reserve Vice Chair, Stanley Fischer, argued that this arrangement is superior to the sole responsibility model in achieving outcomes and accountability. Changes to the role and responsibility of the Governor will necessitate changes to the structure of the Reserve Bank Board. Best practice would suggest that a Monetary Board should be created to set monetary policy with the Reserve Bank Board selecting candidates for the committee while maintaining oversight of the bank. To ensure that external board members are not simply captured by the bank it may be necessary to provide a secretariat similar to the Fonterra Shareholder’s Council, operated at arms-length from bank management.

It isn’t my favoured model, but it would be a considerable step in the right direction, and far superior – in terms of heightened accountability and good governance of a powerful government agency –  to Graeme Wheeler’s preference to legislate his own internal committee.  The biggest problem I see with the Redward proposal, is that it has too much of a democratic deficit.  Monetary policy decisionmakers shouldn’t be appointed by other unelected people –  the Reserve Bank Board –  but by people (the Minister of Finance and his Cabinet colleagues) whom we the voters can toss out. That is how it is pretty much everywhere else.

Peter’s proposal focuses on monetary policy.  But, of course, the Reserve Bank has much wider policy responsibilities, including a lot of discretionary power –  not constrained by anything like the PTA –  in the area of financial regulation.  I presume he would also favour committee decisionmaking for those functions.  I’ve proposed two committees –  a Monetary Policy Committee and a Prudential Policy Committee, each appointed by the Minister of Finance, with a majority of non-executive members, and with each member subject to parliamentary confirmation hearings (although not parliamentary veto).  It is a very similar model to that put in place in the United Kingdom in the last few years.  It puts much less reliance on one person –  who will sometimes be exceptional, and occasionally really bad, but on average will be about average –  and would be more in step with the way in which other countries govern these sorts of functions, and with the way we govern other New Zealand public sector agencies.  I hope the Labour Party is giving serious thought to these sorts of options, and while the headline interest is often in monetary policy, the governance of the financial regulatory powers is at least as important to get right.

And then of course, getting a good Governor will always matter a lot.  The Governor, as chief executive, will set the tone within the organisation, and determine what behaviours are rewarded and which are frowned on or penalised.  If the Reserve Bank failed over the last few years, it wasn’t just because Graeme Wheeler was the sole monetary policy decisionmaker –  his advisers mostly seemed to agree with him –  but because of the sort of organisation he fostered, where “getting with the agenda” seemed more important and more valued than dissent or challenge, in area where few people know anything much with a very high degree of confidence.    Character and judgement are probably, at the margin, more important than high level technical expertise.

And while people are thinking about reforms to the Reserve Bank Act don’t lose sight of how little accountability and control there is over the Reserve Bank’s use of public money, or about the provisions it has carved out for itself from the Official Information Act which allow it to keep secret submissions on major policy proposals even –  perhaps even especially –  when they come from parties who would be affected by those proposals.

Revising the Reserve Bank Act was the first legislative priority for the first Labour government that took office in 1935.    I’m not suggesting the same priority if there is a new Labour-led government later in the year, but there is a real and substantial agenda of reforms to address, which will take time to get right, and which take on some added urgency in view of the vacancy in the office of the Governor that needs to be filled by next March.   That appointment –  a key step in the reform and revitalisation of the Reserve Bank –  should be led by whoever is Minister of Finance, not by the faceless (and unaccountable) men and women of the Reserve Bank’s Board, the people who have presided complacently over the mis-steps of the last few years.

 

 

 

Labour on monetary policy

Alex Tarrant of interest.co.nz had an interesting article earlier this week on the approach the Labour Party plans to take on monetary policy and Reserve Bank issues.    It seems that we should take it as a reasonably authoritative description, even though the formal policy has yet to be released. Labour’s finance spokesman Grant Robertson  described it thus

Useful write up from Alex Tarrant on monetary policy in NZ, including some thinking from yours truly.

From the article

Labour’s stance that the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s (RBNZ) price stability goal should be accompanied by a focus on employment will not see it propose a specific, nominal employment or unemployment figure for the central bank to target, finance spokesman Grant Robertson told interest.co.nz.

Meanwhile, Labour is set to follow the US example of not outlining which of price stability or employment the central bank should prioritise if the two goals were to clash at any point, he said.

Being picky, one might hope that Robertson appreciates the difference between real and nominal targets:  ‘nominal’ is usually a term referring to price measures, money supply measures, or even nominal GDP (the dollar value of all the value-added in New Zealand), while “real” usually refers to quantities/volumes, or to a price-change adjusted for the movement in the general level of prices (eg real house prices, or real interest rates).    Employment or unemployment are “real” variables, not nominal ones.

Mostly I don’t have too much concern if a Labour-led government were to seek to amend the Reserve Bank Act, or to put words in the policy targets agreeement for the new Governor next March, that made some reference to employment or unemployment.  So long, that is, as no one thinks it will make any difference.

No one seriously doubts that monetary policy choices can affect employment/unemployment in the short-term.  But, equally, no one seriously thinks that monetary policy can make much difference to those variables over the longer-term.

Monetary policy affects employment/unemployment in the shorter-term to the extent it affects economic activity.  And thus, when the Policy Targets Agreement states, as it has since 1999 when the incoming Labour Minister of Finance inserted the words, that the Bank should avoid “unnecessary instability in output”….

In pursuing its price stability objective, the Bank shall implement monetary policy in a sustainable, consistent and transparent manner, have regard to the efficiency and soundness of the financial system, and seek to avoid unnecessary instability in output, interest rates and the exchange rate.

….it was already enjoining the Bank to be concerned about the shorter-term employment/unemployment implications of its monetary policy choices.  And in inserting those words it was really just describing –  to help make it better understood to a wider audience –  what it was the Reserve Bank had been doing anyway.  Those considerations were the reason why, from the very first Policy Targets Agreement, price stability had been something to be pursued over the medium-term, with explicit provision for various shocks to prices.  If the Reserve Bank had attempted to fully offset those shocks –  GST increases, or petrol price increases for example –  it would have come at a cost of unnecessarily disrupting output and employment.

So one option for Labour could simply be to add in “employment” or “unemployment” to the existing list of things the Bank should try to avoid unnecessary instability in.

It is also worth noting that Policy Targets Agreements have long opened with descriptions of what a monetary policy focused on low and stable inflation is trying to achieve –  again, mostly an opportunity to remind people that price stability isn’t just an end in itself.   Under the current government, those words have read

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.

Although it isn’t stated explicitly, presumably high employment/low unemployment is part of that mix.

But under the previous (Labour-led) government, it was explicit.  These words were added to the PTA in 2002 by Michael Cullen when Alan Bollard took office

The objective of the Government’s economic policy is to promote sustainable and balanced economic development in order to create full employment, higher real incomes and a more equitable distribution of incomes. Price stability plays an important part in supporting the achievement of wider economic and social objectives.

Of course, those words made no discernible difference to how the Bank ran monetary policy. But then they weren’t really meant to: it was more a matter of “virtue-signalling”: “we care, and monetary policy isn’t just some Don Brash thing”.

And so a challenge that should be put to Grant Robertson and his colleagues is to clarify whether they think that adding a “focus on employment”, whether to the Act or the PTA is intended to make any substantive difference whatsover, and if so how?

In his interview, Robertson refers to the example of the United States, where the Federal Reserve is often described as having a dual mandate.   In fact, in statute that isn’t really true.  Here is what the Federal Reserve Act says of the objectives of monetary policy

The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Open Market Committee shall maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.

The goal, in the somewhat outdated language of the 1970s, is to “maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production”.    All the rest of it is simply a description of outcomes that, over time,  pursuing that nominal (money and credit) target can help achieve.

Of course, you won’t often hear Federal Reserve officials highlight that statutory goal –  and they will often talk of “dual objectives” –  but it does highlight that there isn’t an easy off-the-shelf model of legislative wording for Labour to adopt.

A few years ago, recognising that these issues were now the subject of active debate in New Zealand, the Reserve Bank did a Bulletin article collecting and classifying the statutory and sub-statutory (eg PTA type documents) monetary policy objectives for a variety of advanced countryies  If I say so myself, it remains a useful reference (partly in highlighting the different roles that different ways of framing objectives can play –  some are explicitly aspirational, some more accountabilty focused, some language is old and some new etc).  In many of the countries, employment pops up somewhere or other –  but mostly, apparently, in that same sense that we’ve seen in New Zealand, or in the US statutory objective, that a well-run monetary policy will contribute over time (perhaps in quite small ways) to a well-functioning economy, and labour market.

Robertson has also talked about the statutory language in Australia.  The Reserve Bank of Australia Act specifies (as it has since 1959)

It is the duty of the Reserve Bank Board, within the limits of its powers, to ensure that the monetary and banking policy of the Bank is directed to the greatest advantage of the people of Australia and that the powers of the Bank … are exercised in such a manner as, in the opinion of the Reserve Bank Board, will best contribute to:

a.the stability of the currency of Australia;

b.the maintenance of full employment in Australia; and

c.the economic prosperity and welfare of the people of Australia.

But surely the challenge for Robertson is “so what”?    Is there any evidence he can point to suggesting that, over time, the Reserve Bank of Australia (or the Federal Reserve) have run monetary policy materially differently from the Reserve Bank of New Zealand?    Past research the Reserve Bank has done looking at exactly that issue suggested not.

Perhaps this might seem a curious stance for me to be taking.  I’ve been repeatedly critical of the Reserve Bank’s conduct of monetary policy over the last couple of years  at a time when the unemployment rate that has lingered well above estimates of the NAIRU  (while, curiously, Robertson has often been a defender of the Governor).    But it is most unlikely that any sort of weak reformulation of the statutory goal would make any material difference, especially when  according to Robertson

Labour is set to follow the US example of not outlining which of price stability or employment the central bank should prioritise if the two goals were to clash at any point, he said.

and

He told interest.co.nz that Labour is not going to tell the RBNZ whether one is more important than the other.

The Bank’s failures over the last few years, to the extent that they can be seen as such, have been mostly about forecasting, combined with some over-confident priors, not about policy preferences, or an aversion to seeing high employment/low unemployment.

But if Labour really wants to give the Reserve Bank two objectives, and not even subordinate one to the other (on, for example, the basic grounds that in the long run nominal instruments –  monetary policy –  can only really achieve nominal targets), it is simply fairly explicitly abdicating what are inherently political choices to unelected technocrats.    The strongest case for an independent Reserve Bank is when there is a widely-accepted single target.

Then again, perhaps what is really going on is just “virtue-signalling”.  I’m sure Labour has access to plenty of people who can tell them that the RBA, the Fed, the Bank of England and the Bank of Canada –  all with different ways of phrasing monetary policy goals –  don’t do things much differently from each other, or from the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.  Each will make mistakes at times, each with have idiosyncrasies, and from time to time each might have poor decisionmakers, but there is just no evidence that the framing of the New Zealand target keeps the Reserve Bank from making good policy.  But promising to tinker with the central bank goals probably sounds good in certain quarters –  suggesting that the speakers aren’t dreaded “neo-liberals” and might be “sound” on other stuff.

The Tarrant article also confirms that Labour is looking at governance changes for the Reserve Bank.  Sadly not the right ones.

If Labour leads the government after the 23 September general election, it will immediately launch a review into its proposals. This will also include a look at a Labour preference of taking sole rate-setting responsibility from the RBNZ Governor in favour of a rate-setting board that includes the Governor, his deputies and potentially other voices within the bank.

I hope Robertson and his colleagues bear in mind that governance reforms along exactly those lines –  entrenching a legislative role for internal technocrats –  was rejected by the previous Labour government in 2001.  I thought they were right to do so then (even though at the time I held a role that Labour’s independent reviewer, the academic expert Lars Svensson, thought should be a statutory member of the decisionmaking monetary policy committee), and I hold to that view.

At very least, a decisionmaking committee comprised of internal line managers would necessitate wider changes.   Since the case for moving away from a single decisionmaker is to reduce the risks associated with one person, one shouldn’t just move to a system where that one person, together with people s/he appoints/remunerates, make the decisions.  In the right hands, it might work fine, but we build institutions to protect us against bad outcomes and people who turn out to be poor appointees.  The sort of Governor one might have to worry about isn’t likely to be appointing people who will systematically differ from him/her.  If deputy or assistant governors are to be given statutory decisionmaking powers, those appointments (and that of the Governor) need to be ministerial appointments.  But I’m not aware of any other New Zealand government agency where a group of line managers get to make key policy decisions (perhaps Robertson is?).  Far better to use line managers to service (provide the research and analysis to) a decisionmaking committee, appointed by the Minister of Finance, and made up of a mix of internal and external people (as in Australia or the UK, and –  in a different system of government –  the US).

Although I don’t agree with their specific solution, on this issue I think the Green Party is much closer to proposing a good model than Labour (at least on the evidence of this article) is.  The same goes for enhancing the openness and transparency of the Reserve Bank –  another issue Labour seems not greatly interested in.  On that score, one option perhaps the parties on the left could think about is to require the Reserve Bank to publish, at least six-monthly as part of a Monetary Policy Statement, its estimates of the NAIRU (and perhaps other medium-term trend real variables, such as the natural rate of interest, and the projected trend rate of labour productivity).

There are plenty of aspects of the Reserve Bank legislation and practice that warrant review and reform.  Time has moved on, the Bank’s responsibilities have changed gradually etc.   If Labour is in the position to lead a government after the election, I hope they would be open to setting the terms of their review sufficiently broadly to encompass those issues (eg decision-making, appointment procedures, transparency, openness, the allocation of prudential policymaking powers between the Bank and the Minister etc).  I doubt any of these are really vote-winners, but they are the sort of issues that a modern responsible competent government would put on its agenda, for a tidy-up and modernisation.

Perhaps there are votes in promising to rearticulate the monetary policy objectives. But if so, it is more likely to be through “virtue-signalling”, than through the likelihood that  the sort of stuff Labour is talking about would make any material difference at all either to how monetary policy is actually run, or to the resulting economic outcomes.  Surely Labour must know that.  But does it bother them?

New Zealand has serious long-term structural economic underperformance challenges that need to be grappled with.   Sadly, the current government seems largely indifferent to them.  One can only hope that as policy programmes emerge over the next few months, the opposition parties will be offering some serious alternatives.  At present, there doesn’t appear to be much reason for hope on that score.

 

Reserve Bank Governor and governance: some considerations

Since the announcement last week that the Reserve Bank Governor is leaving at the end of his term, and that his senior deputy won’t be a candidate to replace him, there has been a lot of commentary around both about what the Board and the (post-election) Minister of Finance should be looking for in a Governor, and what changes might be made in the legislative arrangements under which the Reserve Bank operates.  As just one example, both the centre-left economics columnists in yesterday’s Sunday Star Times were writing about aspects of the topic.

That seems entirely appropriate.  The Reserve Bank exercises huge discretionary power in both monetary policy and financial regulation, and the once-vaunted accountability mechanisms have actually turned out to be quite weak.  And the basic structure of the legislation the Bank operates under is now getting on for 30 years old.   Much has changed in that time.

Finding the right individual for the job of Governor matters a lot.  Even within the limitations of the current legislation, the right individual (building the right new senior management team) can make a material difference, in revitalising the organisation, and putting it on a more open and transparent footing –  both as regards policy, and the conduct of the Bank’s own affairs.    Still, we should be careful of what we wish for.  The Herald’s editorial last Friday argued, writing about the monetary policy responsibilties, that “the next Governor will need to be bold”.  Well, perhaps.  But “boldness” isn’t a great quality unless one is sure (a) of to what end it is directed, and (b) of the judgement, capability and character of the person being bold.  If I think back over 30 years of New Zealand monetary policy, Alan Bollard’s deep cuts in the OCR in the crisis conditions of late 2008 probably qualify as bold.  But so did Don Brash’s MCI experiment and Graeme Wheeler’s 2014 tightening cycle.  Neither of those ended well.

In the Sunday Star Times, Rod Oram argued

So, the best we can hope for is the next government, regardless of which party leads it, has the courage to recruit a rare individual as the next Reserve Bank Governor – a person who is highly experienced in the intricacies of the job, yet insightful and brave enough to restore the institution to world leadership.

That last line or so seemed both unrealistic and somewhat ahistorical –  perhaps partly because Oram appears to have come to New Zealand only as the Reserve Bank’s “glory days” were already passing.

The Reserve Bank of New Zealand gets credit for being the first country in the world to introduce (modern) inflation targeting.  I was present at the creation, and am proud of having been part of that.  But it was at least as much accident as design   –  a Treasury that was determined we had to have a contractural arrangement (pretty much every other government agency was getting one), and a muddied post-liberalisation post financial crisis world in which nothing much else would work.  We weren’t forerunners in central bank independence, in getting on top of inflation, in the idea of announcing medium-term targets, or in the publication of accountability documents.  And most of the specific details of our model haven’t been followed when other countries came to revise their legislation.  And if you read our economic analysis during the late 1980s and 1990s it was mixed bag, to say the least.  If I recall with pride the day I read Samuel Brittan of the FT praise our second-ever Monetary Policy Statement, which I’d largely rewritten over a weekend after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and oil prices rocketed, I read some of other stuff we (I) wrote and cringe at least a little.  We were doing some good stuff, but were rushing to catch up with what being a modern central bank really involved, and there were so little institutional resilience that we stumbled into the MCI debacle only a few years later.  (For those too young to understand the reference, (a) be thankful, and (b) I will do a proper post about it one day.)

And what of banking regulation?  After an extensive and acrimonious internal debate in the early 1990s, the Reserve Bank did change quite materially its approach to banking supervision and regulation.  Pulling back from the seemingly-inexorable pressures to become ever more intrusive and interventionist in our banking supervision, we adopted a model which emphasised director-responsibility, and public disclosure, with the aim of better aligning incentives, to strengthen market discipline and reduce the prospect of public bail-outs etc.  Capital requirements were left in place, but as much because the banks wanted them –  they feared they look “unregulated” without them – as because of any Reserve Bank preference.  I wasn’t that closely involved, but I mostly thought it was a step in the right direction –  and lament the way that the Reserve Bank has wound back on public disclosure requirements in recent years.   But if there were elements of the model that did, in small ways, influence the thinking and practice of other countries’ regulatory models, they weren’t very important.  It was innovative, and may even have been right, but it wasn’t really tested –  as the key institutions of our banking system became increasingly Australian-dominated (and hence under the overall oversight of Australian regulatory authorities).  And it hasn’t become the global model – bailouts abounded in 2008/09, no one thinks that problem has been solved, supervision and regulation is at least as intrusive and second-guessing as ever, and the Reserve Bank’s resistance to deposit insurance now looks more anomalous than ever.    There was some good and interesting stuff done, and some able people were involved in doing it, but it was never the basis of “world leadership”.

In any case, how realistic is the idea of “world leadership” in this area?  We are a small country, we don’t resource our central bank that generously (and I don’t think we should spend more), and central banking feels like one of those areas (risk management, crisis management etc) where one should be wary of the pathbreaking – after all, how do we distinguish it from what turns out to be a dead end?; isn’t this what we have academics and think-tanks for etc?  And realistically, if one looks through the lists of people talked about as potential candidates as Governor, be it Geoff Bascand or Adrian Orr (probably the names at the top of most lists) or others –  Rod Carr, John McDermott, Murray Sherwin, David Archer, Arthur Grimes, New Zealanders running economic advisory firms, New Zealanders who are past or present bank CEOs here or abroad etc –  very few look as though they have even the glimmerings of what Oram seems to be looking for.   And even those who just might, have other weaknesses.  For me, I’d settle for someone with the character, energy and judgement, backed up a solid underpinning of professional expertise, to revitalise the institution, rebuild confidence in it, and provide a steady hand on the policy levers, backed by high quality analysis and an openness to alternative perspectives, through both the mundane periods and the (hopefully rare) crises.  And all that combined with a fit sense of the limitations of what monetary policy and banking regulation/supervision can and should do (on which point, I’ll come back another day to Shamubeel Eaqub’s column – not apparently online – on what he thinks the Bank and the new Governor should be doing.)

Finding the right person is a challenge, but it is also highly desirable to take the opportunity now to think about the legislation under which the Bank operates –  in particular, the governance provisions.    Ours is quite an unusual model, whether one looks across other central banks and financial regulatory agencies, or across other New Zealand public sector institutions.  Under our law, all the extensive discretionary powers of the institution are vested in one individual –  him or herself unelected, and selected primarily by unelected people (the Board) –  and the range of powers the institution itself exercises is itself unusually wide.     And, as I’ve noted previously, there is no statutory requirement for the Reserve Bank to have, or publish, a budget, let alone anything of its medium-term financial plans, even though financial control of public spending is one of the cornerstones of democracy. Parliament has less control over the Reserve Bank’s spending than over that of, say, the SIS.       And the Reserve Bank takes an approach to the Official Information Act that suggests they still see themselves as somehow “different” and above the normal standards –  for them, transparency and accountability are about them telling us what they want us to see, not about citizens’ access to information and analysis generated at public expense.

So I was pleased to see the Dominion-Post’s editorial this morning, Good time to reform Bank.   In making their case, they quote me

“In New Zealand public life, it is difficult to think of any other position in which the holder wields as much individual power, without practical possibility of appeal,” Reddell has argued.

Joyce should also look to make the bank more transparent. It publicly releases official accounts of its forecasts and analysis reasonably regularly, but it seldom reveals anything of how its debates are conducted behind closed doors.

Again, this is not the case internationally. The US Federal Reserve releases the minutes of its regular meetings three weeks after they happen. New Zealand likes to brag about its open approach to official information, but in this sphere as in others, it has fallen behind the pack.

As they note, there has been reasonably widespread support for reform.  They note support from The Treasury, and from the Green Party (a recent post from James Shaw reaffirmed that support).  And when the Treasury looked at the issue a few years ago (before the Wheeler appointment), they found that most market economists also supported change.  The Labour Party has toyed with favouring change, and when the previous Labour government commissioned an inquiry 15 years ago, their reviewer Professor Lars Svensson also recommended change.     And we know that Graeme Wheeler himself favoured change –  he made the point again in the (rather soft) interview in Saturday’s Herald.

When Bill English was Minister of Finance, the government wasn’t willing to countenance change.  Having let the chance slip before Wheeler was appointed, going with any model other than Wheeler’s favourite one (legislate to give him and his deputies all the power) over the last few years, would probably have been a political negative for English.  And the Wheeler option is an unsatisfactory one on a number of counts –  since the Governor appoints and remunerates his deputies and assistant, it isn’t much protection against poor decisionmaking or a bad Governor.  But now the slate is clear: the Governor is moving on to new opportunities, and his deputy will simply be holding the fort for six months.   A decision now to think hard about reforming the governance model isn’t a reflection on the current Governor (not that Lars Svensson saw his recommendation in 2001 as being so either), and provides an opportunity for the government to provide a steer to the Board about what sort of Reserve Bank they want the new Governor to run.  It is unlikely new legislation could be put in place by next March (when Grant Spencer’s acting term runs out), but a new Governor could be appointed on the expectation that that person will lead the transition to a new, more modern and internationally comparable, governance model for the Bank.

Who knows if the new Minister of Finance is interested, but flicking through some old posts, I was encouraged to find one from September 2015, reporting an exchange in the House between then Associate Minister of Finance Steven Joyce and the Greens then finance spokesperson Julie Anne Genter.  In response to a question on governance, Joyce responded

Hon STEVEN JOYCE : The suggestion that the member makes, of having a panel of people making the decision, is, I have to say, not the silliest suggestion in monetary policy we have heard from the Greens over the years, and many countries—

A backhanded dig at the Greens at one level, but not an outright dismissal by any means.

Commissioning a background piece of analysis from, say, the Reserve Bank and Treasury, to review carefully, and neutrally, the issues and options, to be delivered to the Minister at the end of September, after Wheeler has left and the election is over, would be an appropriate step now.  Such a document –  which could later form the basis for a public consultative document –  would be a useful contribution to advancing the issue, and a resource that would enable any incoming government to work through the issues and analysis relatively quickly  –  consistent with the sort of timeframe relevant to the appointment of a new Governor.

Reform in this area is something I’ve championed for a long time, both inside and outside the Bank.  It isn’t primarily a matter for the Bank –  it is about how Parliament and the executive want a powerful public agency to be structured and governed –  although of course the Bank may have some specific insights on some of the relevant technical details (of which there are many –  reform in this area isn’t the stuff of some two page bill).

I’ve laid out my own arguments for reform more fully in past posts (eg here) and a discussion document of my own.

Making the case for change is, I think, relatively easy.      There is a much wider range of potential alternative models.   At one end, one could leave most other things intact, and simply shift the power from the Governor to a committee of him and his deputies/assistants.  At the other, one could perhaps break-up the Bank, creating a separate financial regulatory agency (paralleling the Australian approach) with separate governance structures for the Bank and the new successor institution.

I don’t have a strong view on whether the regulatory functions should be kept in the same institution as monetary policy –  there is a variety of models internationally.  But if the functions are kept in a single institution, I think there is a pretty strong case for separate governing bodies for each of the main functions –  both because different sets of expertise are required, but also to help manage the tensions and conflicts and strengthen accountability for the exercise of the various different parts of the Act(s).    This post covers some of that ground.   The key features of the governance model I propose would be:

  • The Reserve Bank Board would be reformed to become more like a corporate (or Crown entity) Board, with responsibility for all aspects of the Reserve Bank other than those explicitly assigned to others (NZClear, foreign reserves management, currency, and the overall resourcing and performance of the institution).
  •  Two policy committees would be established: a Monetary Policy Committee and a Prudential Policy Committee each responsible for those policy decisions in these two areas that are currently the (final) responsibility of the Governor.  Thus, the Monetary Policy Committee would be responsible for OCR decisions, for Monetary Policy Statements, for negotiating a PTA with the Minister, and for the foreign exchange intervention framework.  The Prudential Policy Committee would be responsible for all prudential matters, including so-called macro-prudential policy, affecting banks, non-bank deposit takers and insurance companies.  The PPC would also be responsible for Financial Stability Reports.
  •  Committees should be kept to a moderate size, and should comprise the Governor, a Deputy Governor, and between three and five others (non staff), all of whom (ie including the Governors)  would be appointed by the Minister of Finance and subject to scrutiny hearings before Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee.  There should be no presumption in the amended legislation that the appointees would be “expert” –  however that would be defined – although it might be reasonable to expect that at least one person with strong subject expertise would be appointed to each committee.
  •  The Secretary to the Treasury, or his/her nominee, would be a non-voting member of each committee (the case is probably particularly strong for the Prudential Policy Committee).

In addition, the legislation should be amended to provide for the publication of (substantive) minutes of the meetings of these bodies (with suitable lags), and to require stronger parliamentary control, and public scrutiny, over the Bank’s spending plans.

It isn’t, of course, the only possible answer, but of those on offer I think it provides the best balance among the various considerations: providing internal expertise and external perspectives, clear lines of accountability for diverse functions, greater transparency and financial accountability, coordination across functions and arms of government, all while providing a significant role for the Governor as chief executive, and linch-pin, of the organisation, without anything like as dominant a personal policy role as there has been until now.

We won’t find –  and probably shouldn’t be seeking –  a Governor who walks on water.  But an able person who would effectively lead a revitalised Bank into a new era, with this sort of governance structure, would be making a very substantial contribution.  Change management skills and a commitment to organisation-building should be at least as important as personal technical expertise.  I hope that is the sort of person, and the sort of structure, that the post-election Minister of Finance, and the Board, end up looking for.