Not that way

A consistent theme of this blog over the 3.5 years since the Monetary Policy Committee was established has been the severe inadequacies in the way the MPC was designed, and in the way it has been staffed. Last Tuesday, Stuff journalist Tom Pullar-Strecker had an article that reported on a variety of similar concerns, informed by extensive comments from former Reserve Bank chief economist John McDermott. A particular focus was on the role of the non-executive members (“the externals”).

At the press conference for the Monetary Policy Statement Pullar-Strecker asked the Governor about the externals, and if he didn’t get far (the awkward questions at that press conference were mostly left completely unaddressed), he did get from Orr an observation that externals were free to talk, subject to (Orr’s interpretation of) the MPC Charter provisions (in turn agreed by Orr and the Minister) under which for the first 24 hours after an MPS the Governor was the sole spokesperson for the Committee. It rather invited questions once that 24 hour window had passed.

And it seems that Pullar-Strecker did. Just before 5pm yesterday a document headed “Monetary Policy Committe (MPC) external committee member Peter Harris responds to media questions” dropped into the inboxes of anyone signed up for Reserve Bank announcements. Given the context, it was pretty obvious that the questions were from Pullar-Strecker (later confirmed by him and his story), but the Reserve Bank was at pains to keep anonymous the media outlet, even deleting a reference to Stuff in one of the reporter’s questions.

Kudos to Pullar-Strecker for pursuing the issue. In 3.5 years of the MPC’s life, it is only the second interview ever granted by an external MPC member (there was some comments by Harris to Bloomberg a couple of years back), despite the huge power that (on paper anyway) MPC members wield, not to speak of the mayhem (inflation, looming recession) now following in their wake.

Unfortunately, if the Bank can now push back and say “see, Harris did (another) interview”, the substance of the interview mostly just serves to confirm doubts about the institution and the individuals. From their perspective it is hard to see what, if anything, is gained by choosing to make him available in this way (and I don’t think we need to doubt that doing the interview will have had the sign-off of the Governor, and was perhaps encouraged by him). At times, Harris displays all the grace and constructive open and engagement we might expect in a rebellious 15 year old told they have to make conversation with Grandma at the family Christmas celebrations. If the answers aren’t quite monosyllabic grunts. most of them might as well be.

Since it is important background to the interview, here is the relevant section of the MPC Charter.

I don’t suppose anyone has any particular problem with a), b) and d). In fact, from a) one might positively welcome the explicit mention of the notion that communications should contribute to the accountability of the MPC. The focus is on c). If one interprets the first two sentences as being about the most recent decisions, there isn’t too much problematic there, at least in principle, given the model that favours consensus decisionmaking. After all, good minutes of the MPC meetings (unlike the ones we have) would give considerable weight to outlining the conflicting arguments, perspectives, considerations, and some members might reasonably emphasise some of those rather than others (a consensus decision that everyone can “live with” – the Governor’s own word – does not necessarily mean everyone came to that decision for the same reasons.

Note that the Charter does not prevent – in fact explicitly allows for – members from expressing “his or her view around the balance of risks and/or economic outlook”. As the Governor put it last week, there are some courtesies to be observed (let your colleagues know in advance, don’t attack other individual members’ views in public). And there is the requirement that “such communication is advised in advance and on the record (on the Bank’s website) in real-time”. There is certainly no obstacle to recent MPC members reflecting on what has passed, or on the structure, processes etc of the MPC. Note too that the Charter applies to all MPC members, not just the externals

That final provision in c) looks to have been designed to cater for MPC member speeches. It is easy to announce in advance that an address will be being given and to commit to release the text on the Bank’s website when the address is being given. Whether speakers stick to their written text – Orr apparently rarely does – is perhaps harder to police.

Note, however, that there was no advance notice of the Harris interview, so the Bank – which issued the statement on Harris’s behalf – appears to have been complicit in breach of the Charter. More generally, although the text of this interview is available on the Bank’s website, no other interviews by MPC members are (in the last few days for example, Conway with Bernard Hickey, Hawkesby with Stuff, Silk with Reuters – as it happens, each of those MPC members talking about more market-sensitive stuff than Harris ended up doing). It isn’t uncommon for (internal) MPC members to give interviews to media outlets and (a) never provide transcripts, and (b) which are behind paywalls. The Charter looks like it could do with an amendment to require that the text of any media interview with an MPC member in their MPC capacity should be published on the Bank’s website simultaneously with the story published by the interviewing outlet. That is the sort of approach an organisation seriously committed to transparency would take.

On this occasion, the Bank’s approach – emailing out the text – looks to have been some sort of revenge play, undermining the capacity of the journalist to break a story from the interview, in return for the offence of challenging the Bank/MPC. The rules and practices depend on how compliant the journalist is. Pullar-Strecker noted on Twitter that the Bank had not even told him this was the approach they were going to take.

What of the substance of Peter Harris’s interview.

It begins with this rather defensive ‘overarching caveat”

Except that Conway, Silk, and Hawkesby had each given fairly extensive interviews in recent days. The Charter just is not that constraining, unless you want to avoid scrutiny/comment (or, more generally, Orr seems to favour internal members, who of course directly answer to him). Now, it is fair to note that none of those internal member interviewees were actively advancing alternative perspectives on the inflation and monetary policy outlook, but they weren’t all simply reciting already-published lines either (from Silk we learned that apparently we will have only a “technical recession”, from Hawkesby – rather better qualified to comment – that actually these things are often quite a bit sharper than forecast).

Before proceeding further I should say that I didn’t think all the questions to Harris were particularly well-framed. But it is pretty standard media advice that you answer the question you want to answer. If the question is ill-phrased or not really to the point, answer another one. And if you and your organisation are really committed to being “transparent, open, and accountable” do it in an open, constructive and positive way, not grudgingly or petulantly.

Surely he could have come up with a more constructive response than that? It was, after all, a reasonable question when Orr highlights that all the MPC members were present, but only he and his direct reports were able to say anything. No one forced them to be there, so what did they themselves see the point as having been?

This was interesting, suggesting that Harris had the questions in writing so had had the opportunity to think – and take advice – about how to respond.

As far as I can see none of the questions on monetary policy itself went beyond the sort of thing the internal MPC members were answering in their recent interviews. The journalist pushes back

Which surely leaves everyone confused. The transcript of this interview was published in full on the Bank’s website. If MPC members really aren’t allowed to interviews, why is he doing one?

Even if you don’t want to say much of substance, there are ways of answering these questions that don’t come across as deliberately obstructive, and indeed might offer some insight on the value (or otherwise) a particular MPC member is adding. To take the second question as an example, it was an easy invitation to say something like “yes, but of course any medium-term forecast is inevitably not that much better than a shot in the dark – that is the nature of economics and economies – and mostly likely a lot will turn out different. It is our – my – best view for now, but our processes emphasise holding any view lightly, and regularly updating our forecasts and policy”.

The interview continues

I have no idea what the final sentence is supposed to mean. Of the rest, when a family member read the interview they commented of the first sentence “is he 35?”. In fact, Harris is a lot closer to 70. If he really believes the first sentence – against the backdrop of the 1970s and 80s New Zealand – at very least the claim needs more elaboration. As it is, it simply seems designed as cover for the Bank’s failure (in company with many other central banks).

The interview continues

What an extraordinary claim: worst inflation outbreak in decades, MPC now aiming for a recession to reverse it,, not to speak of crisis lending programmes running on years after the crisis (something even management suggests they might have done better) and $9bn+ losses on the LSAP programme, and even “with hindsight I would have done exactly what we did”. It might be one thing to argue that “only with hindsight would I have done things much differently”, but “with hindsight I’d have done exactly what we did” is….well, almost beyond words. And all that apocalyptic rhetoric……I mean, with hindsight it is clear that “every analyst” (and more importantly in this context, every MPC) was wrong. With hindsight, they were mirages not the Four Horsemen.

He does go on after the one word (“Process”) to describe that process. The internal process doesn’t sound to have changed much since the decades I spent on the internal advisory MPC/OCRAG, but perhaps it is worth noting that in those days unanimity among the Governor’s advisers (it was then finally solely his call) wasn’t that common – in fact, successive Governors had us each put our recommendations in writing, initially without seeing what others were recommending, precisely to limit the risk of groupthink or peer pressure towards the end of the process. It is a very poor reflection on all involved that through the period of great uncertainty and the worst monetary policy stuff-up since the 1989 Reserve Bank Act gave the power to the Bank, not one MPC member, not even once, felt and reasoned sufficiently strongly as to dissent, on anything. Even now, no external MPC member has given us their own accounting for the handling of the last three years (beyond Harris’s “with hindsight we did it right”). Note that the recent Reserve Bank self-review is a management document, and I have an OIA request in at present to try to learn what the externals contributed and whether or not they agreed.

The interviews ends with two answers that sum up the grudging approach

Surely the first of those questions could have been treated as an open invitation to talk expansively about how “I can’t be certain about that, but let me tell you about what I think I as an external member have been able to bring to the table [as someone with decades of experience in New Zealand economic policy, strong connections to the labour market, as someone standing outside the day to day pressure staff and management face, as someone willing to ask awkward questions as part of a confidential deliberative process] – or whatever value he thinks he has offered.

And the final question? What would have been wrong with a more gracious “look others will have to be the judge of that, but I wouldn’t have accepted appointment and reappointment if I hadn’t thought I was adding value. If I can’t be totally detached in assessing my own contribution, when I look at my colleagues – Bob Buckle and Caroline Saunders – I can see the impact they’ve had around the table, the questions they’ve posed, the research they’ve helped spark.” and so on?

It was, of course, a shame that the interviewer didn’t also ask Harris to justify the exclusion of people with current expertise in matters monetary and macroeconomic from serving as external members of the Committee. It wasn’t his choice – Orr, Quigley and Robertson did that – but he now has the benefit of 3.5 years serving on a New Zealand MPC as an external member, and it would be quite reasonable to seek his perspective (and not at all in breach of the charter for him to have given a substantive answer).

We need a better model, and we need better people (internal and external) on the MPC. While perhaps it is better than nothing to have had this Haris interview, the substance (or lack) of it only tends to confirm how poorly we are being served.

Monetary policy appointments

I watched the Q&A interview yesterday with the Leader of the Opposition Chris Luxon. Monetary policy and the position of the Reserve Bank Governor came up.

It is really quite disappointing that the Minister of Finance, presumably with the acquiescence of the Prime Minister, has so politicised the situation that a Leader of the Opposition can reasonably be asked what he would expect (eg possible resignation) of the Reserve Bank Governor after the election if National wins. If he is at all serious about his answer – appoint an independent reviewer as soon as they take office and only decide after that – it is a recipe for considerable, unwelcome, market uncertainty, and further reputational risk for New Zealand and its system of economic governance.

We really should have appointees to such positions that both sides of politics can respect and trust. That has always been implicit in the model under which the central bank is given operational autonomy over monetary policy (and the massive cyclical influence that involves), the Governor (and MPC members) are appointed for terms not coinciding with, and longer than, parliamentary terms, and (in NZ since 1990) where the Minister of Finance cannot simply appoint his or her own person as Governor. That expectation was further reinforced when the current Prime Minister and Minister of Finance in 2018 amended the Reserve Bank Act to explicitly require consultation with other parties in Parliament before a person is (re)appointed as Governor.

When Adrian Orr was first appointed at the end of 2017 that “general acceptance” threshold was probably met. There was plenty of Orr sceptics about. although often rather quietly (since they or their employers had to deal with either NZSF or the Reserve Bank, and Orr was never known for embracing criticism), but there was no great controversy about the appointment (as it happened the search and selection process had been well underway before the election and change of government, and the Bank’s Board – which put forward Orr’s nomination – had been entirely appointed by the previous National government).

It isn’t the case now. The two main Opposition parties had both made clear to the government, when the legally-required consultation occurred, that they had concerns about the proposed reappointment. But there has been no hint or sign that the Minister of Finance made any effort to engage to allay those concerns, instead – his own legislation notwithstanding – he simply pushed ahead and reappointed Orr, having had the nomination made by the new Reserve Bank Board, possessed of almost no subject expertise, he himself had appointed just a couple of months earlier. Perhaps a bit like the entrenchment outrage in the headlines today, it was lawful (much is in New Zealand) but it was far from proper.

(As I’ve pointed out before the actual argument National made in their letter re Orr was weak and their historical parallel was flawed, but then they were caught in a difficult position – unless Robertson heeded their concerns and looked elsewhere for a new Governor, they could be stuck with Orr as Governor, almost certainly unable to dismiss him (unless he did something particularly new and egregious in his new term) – and may have felt reluctant to outline a range of specific concerns about Orr and his stewardship in writing.)

TVNZ’s interviewer, who usually does a fairly good job, seemed to come to yesterday’s interview holding a brief for Orr. Among the lines he put to Luxon was the suggestion that he shouldn’t be too critical or Orr and the Bank because they had been the first developed country to raise their policy interest rate. This is the sort of spin the Bank itself likes to hear, and it uses a more-muted version of it at times. I don’t know how many times it has to be said but it is simply a false claim. It isn’t a matter of interpretation or nuance, it is simply false.

There are probably two main sets of groupings that are used to capture a list of developed countries or advanced economies. The first is membership of the OECD, and the second is the IMF’s “advanced economies” groupings. Neither is ideal. The OECD includes several Latin American countries (Costa Rica, Colombia, Chile, and Mexico) that are mostly much poorer and less productive than other members (I’ve often suggested they are “diversity hires”),and excludes Singapore and Taiwan. The IMF list on the other hand does not include any of the Latin American countries, but in central and eastern Europe seems to include countries if they are in the euro but not if not, even if the latter are equally productive. Since so many advanced countries are in the euro, there are really only 20 or so countries with monetary autonomy, setting their own interest rate.

On several occasions in the past on Twitter I’ve used the BIS’s monthly data on policy interest rates. Of the countries there that are on either the OECD or IMF lists, these were the first countries to raise policy interest rates in 2021.

Discount Mexico and Chile if you like and you are still left with five advanced country central banks having moved before our Reserve Bank did, all of them for countries that are either materially richer/more productive than New Zealand or (Korea, Hungary, Czech Republic) about the same. You could make further allowance for the Reserve Bank and accept that if their MPC meeting in August 2021 had been a day earlier, the OCR would first have been raised then, but they still wouldn’t have been the first to move.

There is no question but that our Reserve Bank moved earlier than the other Anglo central banks (or even the ECB) but what of it?

More generally, when individual central banks moved (early or late in calendar time) is really neither here nor there anyway. Each central bank faced different domestic situations in terms of capacity pressures, emergent inflation, and the core inflation outlook.

I’m not going to attempt to analyse the story each central bank faced last year, but I’ve shown this chart in a previous post.

On the most recent data, for the only internationally comparable measure of core inflation we readily have, New Zealand’s core inflation rate now – a year on from the first OCR increase – is nothing special, being just above that of the median OECD country. If we focus only on OECD countries with their own monetary policies (and the euro area as a single observation) we get this chart showing the increase in the core inflation rate since just prior to Covid (actual Turkey increase is far larger than the scale allows).

It isn’t one of the worst, but again it is slightly worse than the median country (and, as it happens, worse than in three of the four Anglo countries, and worse than the euro area).

This isn’t another post trying to evaluate in any detail the Bank’s absolute or relative performance, but as a general observation almost all central banks have done poorly in the last couple of years, and little about the Reserve Bank’s policies or policy outcomes stands out from the pack. Media defenders of the Governor should take note, and/or get better basic researchers.

What the post is mainly about is central bank appointments. We’ve had some dreadful ones this year – the deputy chief executive responsible for matters macroeconomic who has no background or evident expertise in the subject, and who yet is a full voting MPC member, and (see above) the reappointment of the Governor. Then there was the decision (apparently joint between the Governor, Minister and (old) Board) to keep in place the blackball prohibiting anyone with current in-depth expertise in matters macroeconomic or monetary from serving on the MPC, all as prelude to the reappointment without much scrutiny of two external MPC members whose terms were expiring.

On which note, I had another OIA request back the other day, which included the letter from the Reserve Bank Board chair to the Minister of Finance recommending those reappointments. It was perhaps even more lame than I had expected. There was no attempt to evaluate or describe the contributions Buckle and Harris had made, nothing at all about the rapidly rising (core) inflation backdrop for which they shared responsibility, no suggestion of having considered any alternative candidates (neither Buckle nor Harris are young). In fact, the strongest (only) argument for reappointment seems to have been that “the Bank is implementing a number of significant changes in governance in accordance with its new legislation”, even though almost none of the 2021 Act had anything to do with monetary policy or the MPC

That letter did, however, partly answer one question I’d had. Peter Harris – former politically-appointed adviser in Michael Cullen’s office – was reappointed for a term of only 18 months to expire on 1 October 2023, right in the middle of the likely election campaign. Why, I wondered, would Robertson have done that – ministers after all being well aware of the convention that new appointments should not be made to positions starting close to likely election dates? But it turns out it was the Board’s doing, and there is no sign they gave any thought to the fact that the end of Harris’s term was going to land in the midst of the election period. Which seems quite unnecessarily careless of them. One hopes there is no question of any new appointment being made until after the election. If National were to win, the vacancy would give them an opportunity to begin to exert some influence; one would hope they would remove the bar on expertise, and at the same time amend the MPC’s charter to make it clearer that individual members were expected to bring expertise to bear and to be individually accountable.

But the current government is quite free to make the next MPC appointment. The worst of the first batch of external MPC members was Caroline Saunders. Her term expires on 31 March 2023. The papers released at the time of those 2019 appointments make it pretty clear that she was a diversity hire. Professor Saunders may be very capable in her own field but she has no background at all in macroeconomics or monetary policy. Consistent with that, we have heard not a word from here in her (almost) four years on the MPC. She has taken the taxpayers’ dime and there is no evidence she has made any contribution at all, and has done or said nothing – no speech, no interview, no parliamentary committee appearance – to provide any basis for holding her to account, even as she shares formal responsibility for the biggest monetary policy stuff-up in decades

It would be quite unfortunate if Saunders is reappointed (but most probably it is already a fait accompli, given that no vacancies have been advertised). If there was ever a case for a token female appointment (which there wasn’t; token appointees are never desirable), the ultimate in token appointees now holds a senior executive role on the committee. More generally, in any body – public or private – fresh blood should be introduced from time to time, and yet none of the externals has been changed, and (by the rules they themselves signed up to) those members are not allowed to foster any independent subject expertise themselves in their time on the MPC (and the Bank has been doing very little serious research, so there won’t be much expertise being fostered/extended inside). From a narrowly political perspective, one might have thought it might have been in the government’s interest to have found a strong new appointee who might have a good chance of doing two future terms.

Which bring us back to Luxon. It isn’t clear that National cares very much about any of this,or will fllow through if and when it takes office (why rock the boat when you now have an office to hold and savour?). I’m not at all optimistic, but if they are more serious than they seem, here was a post outlining some of things they could look at.

Appointing an MPC

In my post yesterday I noted in passing that the Reserve Bank Board’s Annual Report had made no mention of their decision to recommend during the year the reappointment of two external MPC members (Bob Buckle and Peter Harris), notwithstanding the huge issues there appeared to be (inflation, and large monetary losses) around the handling of monetary policy. Perhaps it made sense to reappoint them, but the Board gave the public no sense of their reasoning or of what effort they had made to understand the contributions Messrs Buckle and Harris had made. Perhaps, after all, they had fought valiantly but fruitlessly to hold back the Governor’s excesses? (ok, just kidding, but you never quite know).

And then I remembered that months ago I had lodged an Official Information Act request with the Minister of Finance

and had not done anything with the response I had received in June.

There was 44 pages of material, but not very much insight on the externals (a fair amount of material related to the appointments of internal MPC members – the egregious Karen Silk appointment (having become Orr’s deputy for macro and monetary policy with absolutely no evident subject expertise or experience), the strange six month interim appointment of Adam Richardson, and then the uncontroversial appointment of Paul Conway, the new chief economist).

The reappointments of Buckle and Harris were not announced until February, shortly before their terms expired. However, it turned out that the Minister had accepted the recommendation from the Board back in October.

We don’t have the Reserve Bank report (my request was for 2022 material) but someone else requested the Board minutes from late last year, which are on the Bank’s website. In the minutes of the October 2021 meeting we find this

There is no sign of a paper, no sign of any re-interviewing of Harris and Buckle by the Board, no nothing. What is does reveal is a point I’ve been making since the 2018 reforms were passed that in this model it is the Governor who retains the utterly dominant position, even though formally the recommendation to the Minister comes from the Board. The best way not to get any awkward members on the MPC, anyone who might from time to time challenge a Governor, is to allow the Governor himself to recommend not just which staff should be on the committee, but which externals too. You will recall that in any case, Orr, Robertson and Quigley had previously agreed to bar from consideration anyone with an active ongoing interest in monetary policy or macroeconomic analysis and research (a prohibition that Robertson restated earlier this year).

We know – he keeps telling Parliament, the Board, the public – that even now Orr has no regrets about the handling of monetary policy. I guess that was even more so this time last year, when he was clapping his colleagues on the back and arranging for them to be reappointed. This was Orr and his then chief economist at the September 2021 Board meeting.

The complacency is almost breathtaking.

But that was September/October. The Minister of Finance did not take a paper to Cabinet’s Appointment and Honours Committee, advising his intention to make these reappointments, until February, but there is no sign of any greater scrutiny or reconsideration or questioning, even as the dreadful inflation outcomes emerged and the financial losses mounted. The relevant memorandum isn’t long (just a couple of pages). It has no discussion at all of the Bank’s handling of monetary policy or the contribution these external MPC members had made to undesired outcomes, no mention of the blackball on expertise, no consideration of fresh blood, but……..priorities priorities…..

Ah, and people wonder how Karen Silk came to be appointed……(between sex and her climate change enthusiasms).

In fairness, there was a sentence each about Buckle and Harris. Of Buckle APH was told

That would be welcome if true – and to be clear, Buckle is the least unqualified external MPC member – but of course neither we nor APH have any evidence of it. Buckle is barred (by the research blackball) from any ongoing work, has no particular academic history in monetary policy – more time series macro and tax – has not made a single speech in his time on the MPC or given a substantive interview, has never dissented from an MPC decision (members are in principle free to do so), and there has been no sign in the minutes of any distinctive scholarly insights or perspectives. But Adrian told the Board he was a good bloke, and the Board told Robertson, who told his colleagues. More likely, Buckle is an establishment figure who makes the odd geeky point and, most importantly, doesn’t rock the boat. After all, it is only 7.3 per cent inflation and $9 billion of losses on his watch.

What of Peter Harris, former political adviser in Michael Cullen’s office?

That first sentence is almost demonstrably empty. Harris had had almost no professional background in monetary policy ever. He too has given no speech, has never dissented, and has given one brief and unenlightening interview.

(One of the mysteries of these reappointments is that Harris was reappointed for only 18 months. It does make sense to stagger appointments, and people can only serve two terms, but the APH paper sheds no further light on why Harris’s appointment is set to expire on 30 September next year, most likely in the middle of the election campaign. 31 March 2024 would have seemed much more sensible.)

The following month there is a further APH paper re the internal MPC appointments (although there is an e-mail exchange suggesting it may never have been lodged). I’m not going bother with the overblown spin supporting the Richardson appointment (which was just interim), but here is how The Treasury and the Minister tried to bulk up Karen Silk’s qualifications for being on the MPC, making major macroeconomic stabilisation decisions for the next five years.

In other words, no relevant background at all. And she is the most senior person in the Bank (the deputy chief executive) responsible for its monetary policy and macroeconomic functions (there is the Governor of course, but he has the whole Bank to run, financial regulation etc).

I suppose that in a way one might almost feel sorry for Robertson: he couldn’t very easily refuse to appoint to the MPC the person Orr had chosen as his macro deputy, but…….Robertson appointed the Board, including the Board chair, and appointed Orr in the first place, and has never shown the least interest in holding the Governor, the Bank, or the MPC to account.

Ah, and of course that “representativeness” paragraph was there again

No mention of course that actual ongoing expertise is a disqualifying consideration, at least for the externals.

What of the future?

On that point, there was a mildly interesting snippet in the minutes of the very last meeting of the old Board, in June this year. They had a non-executive directors-only discussion, and for once recorded some of the material. In part that was to document their conclusion – for the Annual Report – that the MPC had done just fine, but there was also the bit I’ve highlighted.

Perhaps at the very end they were coming to regret going along with the Orr/Quigley/Robertson research blackball? By then, of course, a few days before their terms ended and their Board disbanded, their views counted for little (less than previously), but I suppose it was better than nothing.

With an even less-qualified Board, whose prime responsibilities are for other matters, we can only wait apprehensively to see what sort of names they come up with – no doubt led by the Governor, looking for tame members above all (at least if Orr is reappointed) – next year and beyond.

Oh, and in case you were wondering about the (previous) Board’s scrutiny of the external MPC members, there was also this in those June 2022 minutes

Not only is there no record of the substance (almost certainly a breach of the Public Records Act) but note the reference to an annual meeting. Presumably the previous one – the only one preceding the recommendation to reappoint – was around last June, when we can be almost certain no hard questions will have been asked (given the general complacency at the Bank at that stage).

It really isn’t good enough. We have a weak Board (old and new), under the thumb (at least on monetary policy) of a Governor who displays little expertise or interest in monetary policy, really dislikes alternative views or challenge, reappointing with little serious scrutiny external members who are barred from active, ongoing or future research or analysis, and who never seem to either speak or vote in ways that might establish some accountability. All involved share responsibility, but the prime responsibility rests with the Minister of Finance whose creation this system is, whose appointees these people are.

The clock is now ticking on the matter of Orr’s reappointment (or not). There are so many counts on which he should not be reappointed – not least of which is establishing some accountability, of the sort which might reasonably see few global central bankers reappointed at present (but a point warranted more for Orr than most, given his strong “I regret nothing” claims) – but it is now little more than five months until Orr’s term expires. Had he been told he would not be reappointed, or himself decided to seek greener pastures to pursue the things he seems really interested in, you’d think that would have to be announced very soon, if only to enable a proper search process for a replacement (there being no single obvious outstanding candidate to replace him).

Consulting on the Remit

The Reserve Bank Monetary Policy Committee works to a “Remit” set down for them from time to time by the Minister of Finance (the current one is here). It is a different (and better) system than the previous approach of Policy Targets Agreements between the Governor and the Minister, and in particular makes it clear (as is appropriate in our system of government) that the (elected) Minister and government set the targets for monetary policy, while the MPC is the accountable (at least on paper) body responsible for setting monetary policy to deliver the government’s goal.

Under the Reserve Bank Act the law now reads

And several weeks ago the Bank kicked off the first stage in a consultative process designed to inform the advice they will eventually provide to the Minister of Finance. If you want to have a say, submissions close next Friday (15th).

Consultation with the public (of some sort or other) is required by law.

The idea of this sort of five-yearly review appears to have been drawn from the Canadian process, where in the lead-up to the five-yearly review of their inflation target the Bank of Canada has done a huge amount of analytical work reviewing the issues and options. Now, Canada is a much bigger country than New Zealand – but it is still one country, with its own set of specific experiences and issues – but the range of material they have put out, and research they have undertaken, is typically very impressive. Here is the link to the most recent review, and here specifically the link to the 24 formal research papers.

By contrast, what we have seen so far from the Reserve Bank of New Zealand is a pale shadow. There is a 60 page document, but lots of graphics, but there is no fresh analysis or research at all. It is possible that this first round consultation is designed simply to draw out the questions people think should be looked at more closely, but even if so that doesn’t leave much time before the second stage of the consultation is due (I think they said October or November). It really doesn’t look as though they have in mind doing much, if any, fresh research, whether commissioned or by their own staff. Against the backdrop of some of the biggest disruptions to monetary policy in the 30+ year history of inflation targeting, that suggests a lack of real seriousness about the review. Perhaps the Minister has already suggested (see 5(2)(c) above that he isn’t interested in much, but there is no hint in the document of such an external constraint. It has the feel more of the diminished Reserve Bank we’ve seen over and over again in the last few years – little published research, weak senior appointments (remember the marketing executive now responsible for macroeconomics, monetary policy and markets), and resources spent on (eg) comms staff, “stakeholder liaison”, and climate change, rather than on core areas of Bank responsibility.

As the review of the Reserve Bank legislation has proceeded I’ve observed on a number of occasions, including in submissions to FEC, that there are aspects of the new legislation that are a mess. The Remit review process, especially coming against the backdrop of the new Board announced last week, helps illustrate some of the problems.

Who is responsible for this Remit review advice? Why, “the Bank”. And “the Bank” here clearly does not include the Monetary Policy Committee, since (as you can see in the extract above) “the Bank” is required to consult the MPC before the advice is given to the Minister. And “consult” (standing alone) is about as weak as legislation gets: you can see by contrast that ‘the Bank’ is required to “consult and have regard to” (a materially stronger standard) the views of the public.

It is simply weird. We have a dedicated Monetary Policy Committee responsible for the formulation of monetary policy and working to carry out the current Remit, but they are treated (by the legislation) as distinctly marginal to the entire review process. There is no obligation on them to provide analysis and advice to the Minister, and “the Bank” is not even required – although it may choose to – to have regard to comments the MPC members might have on “the Bank’s” proposed advice or analysis.

Now, of course, the MPC is dominated by management anyway (the law requires a majority of executive members, each of whom owe their position. departmental resources etc to the Governor) but there are the three external members, and on a good day the Minister and The Treasury will try to tell us they have a valuable contribution to make to the monetary policy formulation process (on other days, the Minister will repeat the blackball he and Orr and Quigley put in place whereby anyone with current or future expertise and research agendas in areas relevant to monetary policy is automatically disqualified from serving on the MPC).

By construction, management always has the numbers so long as they stick together, but wouldn’t a much more sensible approach to have been to have made the MPC responsible for the Remit advice to the Minister, drawing on expertise and perspectives from both staff and outsiders?

The current structure seems especially problematic when one remembers who “the Bank” is. Until last week, unless otherwise stated (ie around the MPC) it was the Governor. But now it is the Board – the same Board of ill-qualified, in some cases conflicted, people I wrote about last week. Not one of the non-executive members of the Board has any experience or demonstrated expertise in monetary policy or macroeconomics. I guess in reality they will delegate it all to the Governor….but delegating such a major issue (or just putting it through the Board with no serious scrutiny or discussion) makes a mockery of the new governance structure.

(Amazingly, if the Minister – this one or a new one – wishes to change the Remit, the law requires consultation (but not “have regard to”) with “the Bank” but not at all with the MPC, who really do seem to be there mainly to make up numbers and eat their lunch (creating in 2018 the illusion of reform over the substance).)

As I noted earlier, there was no fresh analysis or research in the consultative document. What particularly caught my eye was that there was no attempt at a rigorous or systematic review of how monetary policy has been conducted, under the current Remit, in the last 2.5 turbulent years, in which the Bank has run up massive losses and seen (core) inflation blow out. I attended an online consultation session a few weeks ago and I raised this with staff. They told me that there is such a review underway, and they will even have it externally reviewed, but observed that they could not promise it would even be available before the next round of consultation on the Remit advice. That seems far short of adequate, even if your prior is (as mine currently is) that the specification of the Remit probably doesn’t explain a lot about what went wrong.

The Act requires that a review of monetary policy be undertaken (by “the Bank”) every five years or so, and perhaps the current exercise they have underway is the first of these reviews.

But again note how marginal the MPC is (must be consulted – apparently late in the process (“on a draft”) – but no obligation to have regard to their comments). And meanwhile responsibility for the review rests not with the MPC, but with that generic ill-qualified Board. There might be a certain logic in an independent review (done by proper external reviewers) but it is just a weird model – explicable only by a desire to preserve the Governor’s absolute dominance – to marginalise the MPC (who actually had responsibility, and so some self-scrutiny and reflection could be of value), while leaving the power with the Board but ensuring that no one appointed to the Board has the expertise to add much value at all.

This is the Board, you may recall, that Grant Robertson tried to tell us last week had no responsibility for monetary policy.

The legislation is a mess, and I hope that if there is a change of government next year that the new government makes some legislative time available to tidy up some of these provisions, and completing a transition to a model in which a proper MPC has the core responsibility, collectively and individually.

As for the substance of the consultation, I have made a short submission, the text of which is here

Comments on first-round MPC Remit review

Some of my points are already dealt with above, and several are fairly minor in nature. I am broadly happy with the basic shape of the Remit, and it would ot be the end of the world were it simply to be rolled over as is.

I continue to favour a reduction in the inflation target, returning to the 0-2 per cent formulation we had in the 1990s, which is much closer to “a stable general level of prices” (the statutory formulation – and note that the Act is not up for grabs in this review). To make that feasible the effective lower bound on the nominal OCR (perhaps around -0.75 basis points) has to be addressed and either removed or substantially eased (doing so is not a difficult technical matter, but no central bank has yet done so). But even if the target is kept at a range of 1-3 per cent with a focus on the midpoint of 2 per cent it is important that the lower bound issues are addressed. We are in some respects fortunate that the 2020 downturn proved not to be primarily an adverse demand shock, but demand-led recessions will be back, and central banks are not adequately prepared for them. Meanwhile, the consultative document treats the lower bound issues as a given, even though as a technical matter they are entirely under the control of “the Bank” (how well equipped do you suppose that Board is to deal with these conceptual, legal, and monetary economics issues?)

Here are the last few paragraphs of my short submission

Reserve Bank MPS – part 2

This morning I wrote about the choice to cut by 50 basis points and the issues it raised, in context, about the Bank’s communications (non-existent speeches being only the most obvious omission).   In this post, I want to focus on a few other specific issues that came up in the Monetary Policy Statement itself or in the Governor’s press conference.

The first was around fiscal policy.  The Governor is clearly a big fan of the government spending more –  “of course the government has to be spending more”.   As a centre-left voter, I guess that is his personal prerogative, but it isn’t clear that it is his place to use his official office to weigh on highly political issues for which he is not charged with responsibility.  Imagine, if you will, that he was calling for cuts to government spending.  It would be equally inappropriate.

But, much as we shouldn’t just slide past the way he abuses the constraints on his office to advance personal causes, that wasn’t really what bothered me yesterday.   The much bigger concern was the way the Governor blatantly misrepresented the actual fiscal situation.  He claimed to be concerned only that the government wouldn’t be able to spend fast enough (given “capacity constraints”), which might reasonably have prompted a question of why, if government activity would be crowded out, he and his colleagues were slashing the OCR by 50 points in one go.

In fact, it prompted the perfectly reasonable question from Bernard Hickey about whether fiscal policy was actually very stimulatory at all.   The standard reference here is The Treasury’s fiscal impulse measure.  This is the chart from the Budget documents

fisc impulse.png

It isn’t a perfect measure by any means, and in particular one can argue about some of the historical numbers. In my experience, it is a pretty useful encapsulation of the fiscal impulse (boost to demand) for the forecast period. In fact, the measure was originally developed for the Reserve Bank –  which wanted to know how best to translate published forecast plans into estimated effects on domestic demand/activity.

And what do we see.  There was a moderately significant fiscal impulse in the year to June 2019.  That year ended six weeks ago.  For current and next June years, the net fiscal impulse is about zero, and beyond that –  which doesn’t mean much at this stage –  the impulse is moderately negative.    All using the government’s own budget numbers.  And consistent with this, operating revenue in 2023 is projected to be higher as a share of GDP than it is now, and operating expenses are projected to be lower (share of GDP) than they are now.    The Budget is projected to be in (fairly modest) surplus throughout.

And yet challenged on this, the Governor seemed to be just making things up when he claimed that we had a “very pro-active fiscal authority” and that “the foot is on the fiscal accelerator”.    It just isn’t.  Orr must know that (after all, he had Treasury’s Deputy Secretary for macro sitting as an observer in this MPS round).  One even felt a little sorry for the Bank’s chief economist spluttering to try to square the circle, but basically acknowledging that Hickey’s story was right, not the Governor’s.   Perhaps, you might wonder, the Bank thinks the fiscal impulse measure is materially misleading and has its own alternative analysis of the government’s announced fiscal plans. But that can’t be so either: there is no discussion of the issue in the Monetary Policy Statement.

(Incidentally, on Morning Report this morning Grant Robertson tried the same sort of line, only for the presenter to point out to him the fiscal impulse measure, reducing the Minister to spluttering “but we are spending more than the last lot”.  That is true, but the material overall fiscal boost was last year –  and growth and activity were insipid even then, inflation still undershooting the target.)

Was he being deliberately dishonest or simply making stuff up as he went protraying things as he’d like them to be?  You can be the judge, but neither alternative puts our central bank Governor in a good light.

Another joint act –  coordinated or not –  from the Minister and Governor was around investment.  As a nice change, the Bank included a chart of nominal investment as a share of nominal GDP (the approach favoured on this blog)

bus investment RB.png

As I’ve noted here repeatedly, business investment never recovered strongly from the last recession, and if anything (as share of GDP) has been falling back again in the lasdt few years, even as population growth remained strong.    It was good to see the Bank focus on the issue.

But despite the feeble business investment performance, the Bank expects business investment to recover from here.  There is no hint as to why they believe that is likely –  there is talk of more capacity pressure, and yet their output gap forecasts don’t change much from where we’ve been (on their reading) for the last couple of years.  If there is any basis for their beliefs it seems to be little more than the repeated claim by the Governor and the Minister that it is “a great time to invest” in New Zealand.  But firms didn’t think so over the last five years –  even with unexpected population shocks –  and surely the reason the Bank is cutting the OCR has quite a bit to do with deteriorating conditions and investment prospects here and abroad?  In a country that has had almost no productivity growth for the last five years, and with an exchange rate not forecast to change much from here over the forecast period, and with a deteriorating global backdrop (their own words were “global economic activity continues to weaken”) it seems little more than wishful thinking to expect a resurgence in business investment.

Ah yes, productivity, or the rather the lack of growth in it.   Here is my chart, using the two official GDP measures and the two official hours measures.

GDP phw mar 19

The orange line in the average for the last five years.  There is next to no aggregate productivity growth in New Zealand.

And yet somehow the Bank manages to conjure it up. They report a “trend labour productivity” growth variable, which they claim has grown steadily every year since 2012 (averaging perhaps 0.8 per cent per annum growth), and they forecast that productivity growth will continue –  and even accelerate a bit –  from here (averaging in excess of 1 per cent per annum growth).   It hasn’t happened, and it seems most unlikely to start now –  absent any big favourable change in policy or the big relative prices facing firms (eg the exchange rate).   The investment opportunities –  profitable ones –  just don’t seem to be there.   But I guess acknowledging that would upset the Governor’s spin about the “great condition” the country is in.

A wise person would then be very sceptical of the Bank’s  projections that economic growth picks up from here.  In fact, with net migration projected to continue to slow –  and with it population growth – it is hard to see why GDP growth over the next year should get even as high as 2 per cent (even assuming the rest of the world doesn’t fall into a hole).

My final point relates to the prospects for policy if the outlook continues to deteriorate.   I thought it was quite right for the Governor to note that when you are starting from here then, whatever your central forecast, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise if the OCR were to need to be set at a negative rate at some stage in the next couple of years.  Forecasting just isn’t any more precise than that.

That degree of openness is welcome.  What is much less so is the Bank’s secrecy  –  and perhaps lack of straightforwardness/honesty – around possible options if the limits of conventional monetary policy are reached.    As the ANZ pointed out in a note this morning, just three weeks ago the Reserve Bank responded to an OIA request about unconventional tools by (a) stonewalling, and (b) claiming that the work “is at a very early stage”.  And yet yesterday, the Governor claimed they were “well-advanced” in their work.  Both simply can’t be true (bearing in mind that the last two weeks will have been taken up with this MPS).   Which is true I wonder?  Who were they trying to deceive?

But again, perhaps worse than playing fast and loose were two things that should bother people more.  The first is the way the Bank is keeping all this close to their chest.  Responding to that OIA they refused to release anything (“very early stage” or whatever) on the grounds that to release anything would prejudice the “substantial economic interests of New Zealand” –  one of those OIA grounds the Ombudsman simply doesn’t have the competence or confidence to challenge agencies on.  Yesterday, we were told it all had to be kept very confidential to the Bank, because it was “market-sensitive”.

I’m with the ANZ economists who in a useful note this morning (worth reading, but I can’t see on the website to link to) observed

Let’s hope that a possible plan for unconventional monetary policy is shared publically soon, so that financial market participants and households can be confident of a smooth rollout of extra stimulus. And with the recent cut to 1%, and an even lower OCR widely expected, the clock is ticking.

This isn’t like the situation the Fed faced in late 2008, rushing to make policy on the fly in the middle of crisis, deploying things almost as soon as they were dreamed up.   This is contingency planning.   No one (I imagine) is wanting the Reserve Bank to tell us exactly what conditions would trigger the use of which instrument (the Bank themselves won’t know anyway, and things will be event-specific) but it is highly desirable that the work on options that the Bank and Treasury are doing should be socialised more broadly, so that (a) it can be challenged and scrutinised (officials have no monopoly on wisdom) and (b) as the ANZ says, to help reinforce confidence –  including holding up inflation expectations –  going into any serious downturn.  The Governor tried to claim again yesterday that the Bank was highly transparent around monetary policy, but this is just another example of how they cling closely to anything of much value (as I’ve put it before, they are usually happy to tell us things they don’t know –  eg three year ahead macro forecasts –  but not what they do now, such as background analysis papers that feed into monetary policy, or detailed work on options if the nominal lower bound is reached).

Personally –  and here I might part company from the ANZ – I remain very uneasy about the potential for unconventional instruments. The Governor has consistently talked up the possibilities, but he has never shared any research or analysis to give us confidence about what difference such tools would make to macro outcomes (have I mentioned that he has given no speeches about monetary policy?).   As I’ve noted before just look at how slow the recoveries were in the countries that deployed these unconventional instruments –  not issues of underlying productivity growth, but simply closing output and unemployment gaps –  and you should be very sceptical too.   That is why I keep hammering the point –  in yesterday’s post again –  that the Bank, the Treasury, and the Minister should be doing work on making the lower bound less binding, and taking the public and markets with them to prepare the ground.  All indications are that they are doing nothing.  If that is not so, it would be very helpful if they told us –  it is, after all, official information and in this context the “substantial economic interests of New Zealand” are being jeopardised by them either not doing the work, or doing it and not telling us.

On which note, it is extraordinary that in an entire 52 page Monetary Policy Statement there is not a word about any of these issues and options.  The Governor is right to highlight that we could soon face negative policy rates (as ANZ points, yesterday one of the government indexed bonds almost traded negative – real yield), but he is remiss not to be engaging the public, markets, MPs, and other affected parties (firms and households) on how best to think about handling such an eventuality. “Trust us, we know what we are doing” is a mentality that was supposed to be consigned to history decades ago, but bureaucrats  –  including ones with a poor track record of achievement – will hoard their little secrets and (it seems) ministers will cover for them.  Grant Robertson promised that the reformed Reserve Bank would be more open and accountable. There is little sign of it so far.

 

Appointing an MPC: worse than Trump?

Interest.co.nz had a story yesterday picking up on the Official Information Act releases (from the Minister and from the Board) I wrote about the other day about the appointment of the members of the new Monetary Policy Committee.  The story focused on the weird decision to exclude from consideration “any individuals who are engaged, or who are likely to engage in future, in active research on monetary policy or macroeconomics”.     This wasn’t just a hypothetical: at least one person who could have been quite suitable for the MPC was actively turned away on these grounds.

The tweet promoting the story sums up reaction quite well

One measure of how crazy this is, is that Don Brash has been willing to comment on the record.  Whatever else he talks openly about, Don has generally been very careful not to comment much about Reserve Bank matters since leaving office as Governor, and he is the chair of a bank the Reserve Bank (prudentially) regulates.  And yet this time he has spoken out.

“One would’ve expected the members of the MPC to be experts in monetary policy, or at least macroeconomics more generally. It seems quite extraordinary to exclude people who would have that kind of expertise…

The claim has been that the issue here is about “conflicts of interest”.   Conflicts of interest were, and always will be, a real and important issue to consider in putting together an MPC.   We couldn’t, for example, have as an MPC member someone who was advising clients on monetary policy and macroeconomics, or who was actively trading financial markets themselves.  I hope all the MPC members have suitable stand-down periods written into their terms and conditions that mean that members can’t leave the MPC one day and turn up advising a bank or hedge fund on New Zealand monetary policy a very short time later.

But “conflict of interest” is one of those labels that is sometimes flung around loosely, as a weapon against people someone is trying to exclude, without sufficient calm deliberation as to the specific nature of any alleged conflict.    There is simply no conflict of interest involved in having someone on the Monetary Policy Committee who is doing, or is likely to do, active research in monetary policy or macroeconomics.  In fact, it would be highly desirable to have at least one such person on an MPC.  It isn’t a conflict so much as a natural complement.

There might, appropriately, be rules about such a person not being able to, say, sell their research findings to a hedge fund or an advisory firm.  There might, appropriately, be rules about them not trying to trade the research results (in the unlikely event that the research results were that good.  That would be no different than (see above) prohibitions on selling advice on related issues.  And any (external) member of the MPC should have no better access to –  or ability to use for research –  Reserve Bank data than any other researchers.    But actually having someone on the MPC who was thinking and writing about monetary policy and macroeconomics –  whether quantitatively or through other approaches – would normally be a plus rather than a minus.

In truth, there aren’t that many people in New Zealand who would fit the description (researching now, or likely to in the future, monetary policy or macroeconomics), but that isn’t really the point (and overseas people with such expertise should have been able to have been considered for at least one slot).  One of the old arguments against a committee was that it would be hard to fill it: harder still (with capable useful people) if you rule from the start people actively engaged in thinking and/or writing about the issues.

And it isn’t as if the management majority on the MPC is so stocked with monetary policy or macroeconomic expertise and experience that any more might simply be redundant (although diversity of view and perspective, and informed challenge, would be valuable even then).   Of the four internals, probably only the Governor has ever done anything that might reasonably be called research on monetary policy and macroeconomics, and that will have been the best part of 20 years ago.

In a comment on my earlier post someone (whom I deduce to have been a former Reserve Bank staffer) noted

A former colleague used to say that if Bernanke, Yellen, Williams, Orphanides, Bean, Forbes, Posen, Pagan or Gregory were Kiwis they would have stood no chance for a role at the RB. I started agreeing with him more.

That covers the Fed, the ECB (central bank of Cyprus), the Bank of England, and the RBA. And it isn’t even remotely an exhaustive list of the people serving on decision-making monetary policy committees in the last few decades (whether in executive or non-executive roles) who would have been excluded on the bizarre criteria the Minister and Board have cobbled together.

There is a list of all former UK MPC members here, and the sort of people Robertson, Quigley and Orr would have excluded would include (in addition to those in the quote above) (and still non-exhaustively) Charles Goodhart, Willem Buiter, Sushil Wadhwani, David Miles, Danny Blanchflower and, of course, Andy Haldane.    Lars Svensson (and a bunch of other who served at the Riksbank) would be excluded.    So too would Alan Blinder (former vice-chair of the Fed), Stan Fischer (another former vice-chair and former Governor in Israel) Ric Mishkin, Jeremy Stein and, just of the current FOMC and alternates, John Williams (president of the New York Fed) and several others.    It is simply an absurd stance.

One measure of the absurdity is that Donald Trump –  hardly a byword for trust in expertise –  hasn’t applied the same sort of standard.  One of his latest two nominees to the Board of Governors is Chris Waller, Director of Research at the St Louis Fed –  who had a new empirical article out on monetary policy just a couple of months ago.  Earlier Trump sought to nominate Professor Marvin Goodfriend, an active researcher on monetary policy issues (and often more “hardline” than the Fed).  It is the sort of standard people generally expect to be applied –  not all active researchers by any means, but nothing like the sort of Robertson-Quigley-Orr (RQO) blackball  – when it comes to the monetary policy decisionmaking body.

By the RQO logic, you wouldn’t anyway actively engaged in monetary policy research as one of the internal appointees either.  Which would be equally absurd.  Just as well, I suppose, as none of them are, but in most central banks –  with four internals on a committee –  you’d probably expect at least one would meet that standard.

What do the Minister and Bank have to say for themselves?

Here is the Minister’s take

Robertson admitted: “It was a difficult balance to strike and we certainly had conversations about where it should lie.

“The idea is that we want the person to be able to focus on the MPC work; that we’re not looking for a lot of public comment on that work.

“It’s where you draw the line between somebody’s professional working life and commenting on aspects of the economy or aspects of monetary policy that the Committee would be considering.”

Robertson didn’t accept the argument those with the skills to be on the MPC were the sorts of people highly likely to do “monetary policy” or “macroeconomic” research when their terms were up, and ruling them out would severely limit the talent pool.

Robertson said members having a good understanding of monetary policy was important, as was ensuring they have a range of backgrounds.

“Over time this will evolve. What I’m trying to say is that I actually have some sympathy with the view that we do want informed people on the committee. I think we’ve got that, but we do have to get a balance.”

(Note that there was no hint of those “conversations” was in the OIA releases from either the Minister or the Board.)

To be fair, it doesn’t sound as if this blackball was really his idea.  Perhaps he isn’t even really that keen.  But it still isn’t a very convincing response.  Being an external member of the MPC isn’t a full-time role –  it was advertised as being about 50 days a year –  so you might have supposed that someone (eg an academic) doing research in the broad area of monetary policy or macroeconomics (macro is a big field might offer a bonus –  the taxpayer gets the benefit of that work without having to pay them to do it.    And quite how doing academic (or similar) research on macro issues after they left the MPC should be disqualifying, well….tells you all you really need to know.  The aim was about excluding capable, energetic, knowledgeable people –  experts who might have made a valuable, if potentially awkward for management, contribution to a diverse committee.   And, to sheet home responsibility, I don’t suppose Robertson really cared that much but Bank management will have.

The Bank’s response was interesting.  Recommendations of MPC appointments were a matter for  the Board, chaired by Waikato University Vice-Chancellor Neil Quigley.   Quigley apparently wasn’t commenting –  rather makes my point about an unaccountable shadowy Board, in this one of their few areas of formal power –  but a Bank staffer provided this comment.

The RBNZ spokesperson likewise said: “The full seven-member monetary policy committee has a broad range of economic expertise that does include monetary policy, labour markets, macroeconomics, asset markets, financial markets, agricultural economics, international trade, fiscal issues, taxation, etc.”

(Without getting into the substance of those claims) that response simply doesn’t address the issue at all.  It is little more than stonewalling and distraction.   Part of the point about externals was to provide a counter-balance, an alternative perspective, on management.  What possible grounds could the Bank have had for such a blackball on specific research expertise and interest in monetary policy or macroeconomics?  An academic expert in wellbeing is fine apparently, but not one who is actually expert in monetary policy, macro or financial markets.   Almost beyond belief.

Almost, but not quite.  Because in all these debates over the last five or six years that presaged the move to a committee, management never ever wanted to materially dilute its influence, power and control (Wheeler wanted to set up a statutory committee that was only him and his senior staff, appointed by him).  In response to a question from Eric Crampton on my post the other day I noted

I don’t think it is really a conflict of interest issue, but more one about the “collegial” model that the Bank management largely persuaded Robertson to go along with. They don’t really want MPC members taking an independent stance, or presenting conference papers that might raise questions (no matter how indirectly). Bank management tended to have a very negative view of the role Lars Svensson played at the Riksbank, and were also influenced years ago by negative views from BOE management about the way some external MPC members played their (then) new roles. They don’t want “big beasts” – they want people who will go along or (charitably) who will quietly ask not-too-hard questions in the closed confines of the Board room.

Remember that even when the Bank favoured a move to a committee – Wheeler tried to get the legislation changed – they never wanted to diminish management influence (that was explicit in Wheeler’s proposal, but strongly suffused what they got Robertson to sign up to). There is no sign Robertson much cared, and altho Tsy was probably a positive influence at the margin, the Bank was more invested in the issues than Treasury.

That still seems about right to me.   Even though –  against the Minister’s initial stance, persuaded by the Bank  – Treasury eventually managed to get provision in the MPC rules for individual members to speak openly, it never seemed very likely those provisions would be used much if at all –  and thus we’ve heard nothing from any of the external MPC members since they were appointed.  After all, the Governor is the boss of the internals (a majority of the committee), not known for his tolerance for dissent (or competing egos), and he played a huge role in appointing the externals (one of a three man interview panel, and the one with time, resources, and knowledge at his disposal).  The prohibition from the start on anyone who knows too much, and might want to go on thinking and researching, was just one more element in the winnowing process to make sure that they secured a tame and safe team.   Buckle, Harris, and Saunders may even add a little value at times, but it will all be terribly safe, and not very demanding. Just the way management like it –  and of course, the Board has always acted as defensive cover for the Governor.  (This hypothesis may also explain how Buckle got on the MPC –  he is now retired, but has done research on macro, and even written a little about monetary policy: the OIA from the Board showed that his name was suggested by……management.)

It might be one thing –  although still pretty undesirable –  if the Bank had covered itself with glory in the conduct of monetary policy and associated economic analysis in the last decade. But that is so very far from being the case –  not only has inflation consistently undershot, but Bank speeches and research offer little that is interesting, insightful or challenging.  And there is little sign now that management is any nearer to having rebuilt an internal capability of excellence –  indeed, reports suggest the internal research capacity has been gutted.  Add in a closed and defensive culture, and the sort of challenge and contest that a couple of people actively working on monetary policy or macro could have brought to the table should have been exactly what the situation demanded.

But management won and mediocrity prevailed.  Robertson, Orr, and Quigley deserve to be the laughing stock of international central banking –  worse than Trump on this score, the only people responsible for advanced country central banking who wanted to ensure that no one with any real expertise –  who might add real value – got near monetary policy decisionmaking (even as the Bank’s own internal research capability has been gutted).¹  The Bank’s international reputation in the 1990s was always a bit overdone (better than deserved), but those who were involved then, and those who once sang the Bank’s praises then – could probably never have imagined things would quite come to this.  But bureaucrats guard their bureaucratic empires, and ministers often let them get away with that.  And so mediocrity triumphs and the opportunity to produce a good quality MPC has passed for now.  Fortunately, the prohibition on expertise isn’t in the Act, this Minister won’t last for ever, Quigley’s term ends soon, and the very future of the Board is up for grabs.  But if you don’t start off new institutions strongly, it is hard to pull them up to a better, more internationally comparable standard, at some later date.  Such a shame.  Such a lost opportunity.

  1.  Well, perhaps they and the Irish Minister of Finance.

 

MPC appointments: prioritising sex over expertise

The lawlessness of the Board of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand never ceases to amaze me,  Just in recent years, there was clear evidence that the Board simply ignores the requirements of the Public Records Act.   There was their facilitation of what was almost certainly an unlawful appointment of an “acting Governor” in the run up to the election (decent outcome in the abstract, but unlawful nonetheless).   And, of course, they play fast and loose with the Official Information Act, apparently confident that the Ombudsman is largely toothless.  It is all the more extraordinary in that since 2013 the Bank’s Board has had a senior lawyer as a member.  I’d not paid much attention to him, not knowing anything about him, but when I finally met him last week –  where he told us he “trains judges” – it reignited my interest in just how a senior lawyer makes himself party to so much questionable –  borderline at least – conduct by a public agency.

We’ve seen a repeat of this sort of “the law doesn’t really apply to us” mentality around the release of papers relating to the appointment of the new statutory Monetary Policy Committee.  I wrote about that here.   I’d lodged requests with both the Minister of Finance and the Bank’s Board.  The Minister took a while to respond, but his responses were within timeframes allowed by law (a single extension of time, if that extension takes the deadline beyond the usual statutory 20 days).  The Board, on the other hand, extended, extended, and extended again –  quite unlawfully (Ombudsman advice makes that interpretation quite clear) –  before finally releasing some material a couple of weeks ago.      They did have a fairly junior person apologise for the delay, but that is pretty meaningless (no penalty on them –  even after I complained to the Ombudsman –  and no sense of any serious intention to amend their ways).   And yet these people – the Board –  are supposed to keep the Governor in check (and the government is now proposing to give them even more formal powers).

But this post is mostly about the substance of the MPC appointments.  There are two releases.  The Board’s response is here, and the Minister of Finance’s release is here.

Grant Robertson OIA release on MPC appointments

I know for a fact that neither release is comprehensive (including things I’ve been told privately, things alluded to in what has been released, and rather obvious omissions –  are we really supposed to believe that, eg, the Board chair did not brief the Board on his discussions with the Minister?) but what has been released does quite a lot to flesh out a picture of a process that doesn’t really seem to put anyone involved in a particularly good light.  There are even signs that the Board is taking the Public Records Act a bit more seriously than they did around the appointment of the Governor.   My earlier post on the new MPC is here: these releases answer some of the issues I raised there, mostly leaving me more concerned than I was previously.

One of my longstanding concerns about the new regime would be that it would largely replicate the dominance the Governor had in the old legislative model (where the Governor was, by law, the single decisionmaker).  Part of the reason for that concern was the statutory majority of internal members of the MPC.   All those internal members owe their day jobs to the Governor, who also decides on internal resource allocations, pay etc.  A really strong Governor might encourage diversity of perspective and challenge. There has never been any suggestion Adrian Orr is that sort of person, indeed rather the contrary.   And the external members are appointed on the Board’s recommendation, but…..the Governor himself is a member of the Board.  And instead of distancing himself from the process, and leaving recommendations to the non-executive directors, the Governor was one of the three man interview panel for the external MPC nominees.    Throw in the code of conduct the Board (Governor a member again) devised and clearly no one remotely awkward was going to get through the screening process.  (Consistent with that, in the four months since the MPC took office, not one of the externals has said a word – that might, in part, be because no media have asked them questions, but there is nothing to stop a more proactive approach.)

Consistent with all this, the Board released the set of questions they used for their interviews with potential MPC appointments.  There wasn’t much sign, from the questions, that the Board was looking for excellence (in anything), but there was certainly nothing in those questions to suggest they were looking for MPC members who robustly challenge, and offer markedly different perspectives over time to, the Governor and staff.

But it was much worse than that.  This is from a Treasury note to the Minister, released by the Minister (note that the Board itself kept this secret)

MPC 1

This is simply staggering, or should be in a country with good quality competent institutions.  And I know Treasury isn’t misinterpeting things, because I was told about this restriction some time ago by a person who was rejected on exactly these grounds –  that they might be interested and knowledgeable enough about monetary policy to be doing some research on it.   By this standard, I guess the Board and Minister (presumably aided and abetted by the Governor) would disqualify (a New Zealand) Ben Bernanke, Janet Yellen or (right now) John Williams, the head of the New York Fed and someone who –  while serving on the FOMC –  has continued to undertake research on monetary policy.   I realise that expertise is going out of the fashion at the ECB (Makhlouf, Lagarde) but their new Chief Economist –  former Irish Governor –  Philip Lane has been an active researcher and writer.  Or one could think of Andrew Haldane at the Bank of England, or….or….or.  Is it now considered a negative –  perhaps a disqualifying consideration  –  if the Reserve Bank’s chief economist was doing research on monetary policy, or does the disqualification only apply to externals, over whom the Governor has less control?  It almost beggars belief that the Minister and Board would get together and disqualify anyone with specific serious expertise in monetary policy from a new Monetary Policy Committee.   Sceptical as I was of the new committee in principle, even I was stunned when I learned of this prohibition.

(And, to be clear, I am not one of those who thinks an MPC should be stacked full of research macroeconomists –  I’d be happy to have a couple of people, of the sort who ask hard questions and have good judgement, with little or no formal economics background at all – just that such people shouldn’t be ruled out in advance.  As it is, the current MPC looks odd in that among its seven members there is not a single one who could really be considered to have a long record of depth of expertise in monetary policy and the New Zealand economy.)

So if the Board, the Governor, and the Minister weren’t looking for in-depth expertise, and weren’t looking for anyone to rock the boat, what were they looking for?   The short answer – suffusing both sets of releases – is women.     In none of the material released to me is there is any discussion about the sorts of expertise that might be sought, or how to build a committee with complementary sets of skills, but there is a great deal of unease –  particularly channelled from the Minister’s office –  about getting women selected (even to point, in some places, where there seemed to be attempts to strongly encourage the Governor to select a woman as his chief economist).  There are records of early approaches by the Board Secretary to get possible women (and Maori) candidates (and a Treasury response which points out that there really aren’t that many adequately qualified women –  not that surprising given how many women did (say) economics honours or masters programmes in New Zealand 30 years ago (in my own honours course at Victoria, the number was either one or zero out of about 15)).    As it is, despite all the huffing and puffing, they ended up with only one women on the shortlist.

There were a couple of other things that were striking.  The Board’s release records various email mentions of trying to identify candidates with legal backgrounds.  This is almost a complete mystery to me, as the MPC has no regulatory responsibilities and the legislation it operates under is pretty straightforward (and the Bank has internal and external legal advisers if things do require any clarification).  The MPC is about cyclical macroeconomics management, and communications thereon.  Someone of a particularly suspicious cast of mind might suggest that a legally-qualified MPC member would be one less knowledgeable person for the Governor to have to bother about.   I’m just genuinely puzzled.

The Board’s release also recorded various exchanges among senior Bank managers about what sort of person might be suitable as an external MPC appointee (they were looking for names to suggest to the Board).  What took me by surprise was the aversion to overseas appointees.  As regular readers know, I do not think we should have (say) a foreign Secretary to the Treasury (or a foreign Chief Justice, or a foreign Governor) but I was always among those at the Bank who saw one of the advantages of moving to a statutory MPC is that it could allow the appointment of one foreign person, bringing a slightly different expertise and perspective to New Zealand monetary policymaking.   It was never clear how feasible this would be –  distance, and relatively low New Zealand salaries being an obstacle –  but it has been tried, and appeared to work, in some other countries.

But that clearly wasn’t the view of the senior management last year.  The then Chief Economist, John McDermott (for example) is quoted as saying

“overseas members would be a logistical nightmare and what is their interest in looking after New Zealand welfare and monitoring the NZ business cycle on a continuous basis? So no from me.”

There is no sign of any of his colleagues or bosses dissenting and no reference to possible overseas appointees later in the any of the documents.  As it is, it isn’t clear how much “continuous monitoring” of the New Zealand economy the MPC members are actually doing (a recent conversation I was party to suggests not much in at least some cases).

Management also debated the issue of whether former RB staff or Board members should be considered (I suspect some might have liked to have Arthur Grimes appointed).  The consensus seems to be (reasonably enough) that there needs to enough distance for such a person to be genuinely external.  For groupies, one can try to guess which names are deleted in this paragraph

MPC 2

Disconcertingly, there are signs that management was open to have serving public servants appointed provided they didn’t currently work for agencies too close to things macro.  There should be an absolute prohibition on anyone working for a government department or Crown entity (other than as an academic) being considered for a part-time external MPC appointment in an (operationally independent) central bank.

The final point I wanted to touch on answered one of my questions from a few months ago.  Writing about the externals I noted

One area where I do have some concern is around the role of the Minister of Finance in these appointments.  In principle, I think the Minister should be relatively free to appoint his or her own preferred candidates, and should be fully accountable for those choices (including through the sort of non-binding “confirmation hearings” –  of the sort UK MPC members face – that I’ve proposed for New Zealand).  As it is, on paper the Minister has no say at all (can reject Board nominees, but nothing more).

But then I’m a bit troubled by the way in which the Board –  all but one appointed by the previous government – ended up delivering to the Minister for his rubber stamp a person who was formally a political adviser in Michael Cullen’s office when Cullen was Minister of Finance (Peter Harris) and another who appears to be right on with the government’s “wellbeing” programme.     They look a lot like the sort of people that a left-wing Minister of Finance –  one close to Michael Cullen –  might have ended up appointing directly.     I don’t think Peter Harris is grossly unqualifed for the role, but I am uneasy that one of the very first external appointees is a former political adviser to a former Minister of Finance of the same party as the one making the appointment.   …. (I don’t think former political advisers should be perpetually disqualified, but it might be more confidence-enhancing had they been appointed by the other party from the one for which they used to work –  thus Paul Dyer, former adviser in Bill English’s office, would probably be better qualified for the MPC roles than any of the recent external appointees.)

I’m left wondering what sort of behind-the-scenes dealings went on to secure these appointments.  I hope the answer is none.  I’d have no particular problem if, while the applications were open, the Minister had encouraged friends or allies to consider applying. I’d be much less comfortable if he had involvement beyond that, prior to actually receiving recommendations from the Board.  It isn’t that I disapprove of politicians making appointments, but by law these particular appointment are not ones the Minister is supposed to be able to influence.    So any backroom dealing is something it is then hard to hold him to account for.

The relevant provision of the Act says just this (buried in a schedule)

Appointment of internal and external members
The Minister must appoint the internal and external members on the recommendation of the Board.

It is very similar to the provision governing the appointment of the Governor.  That provision has been sold consistently as a model under which the Board puts forward a name, and the Minister can either accept or reject the person, but cannot interpose his own nominee.  If the Minister rejects the Board’s nominee, the Board has to go back and come up with another name.  The provision was explicitly intended to leave almost no discretion to the Minister.  (It isn’t a framework I approve of, but it is New Zealand law).

You will recall that in that earlier post I wondered quite how it was that the new MPC just happened to contained two obvious left-wing people, one a former political adviser in the office of a Labour Minister of Finance.  The material released to me answers that question pretty clearly.

I’d assumed that the Board had put up three names to the Minister and he had either accepted them all, or perhaps (though unlikely) had vetoed one name and the Board had then come up with another.   But that wasn’t what happened at all.  Instead, the documents disclose that the Board put up seven names to the Minister for the three external appointeee positions, not ranking or prioritising them at all, and giving the Minister complete leeway to choose any three of the seven.   Actually, they went further than that, in that the Board told the Minister that they had interviewed nine people, and listed the names of each of them, more or less inviting the Minister to suggest that if he didn’t like the seven names the Board recommended he could probably have one of the spare two (since it described all nine as “appointable”).

The documents also make clear that Caroline Saunders was the only woman on the shortlist (or certainly of the recommended seven).    Since Saunders has no background in macroeconomics or expertise in monetary policy, and given that strong focus in the documents on getting women nominees, it is unfortunately hard to avoid the suggestion that she was a “diversity hire” –  chosen for her sex rather than for the expertise she would bring to the MPC.  In the circumstances, how could the Minister not have chosen her?  One would hope it wasn’t so, but –  and this is problem with quasi-quotas –  it is impossible for us, or for her, to be confident that it wasn’t so.  Perhaps over time she will fully justify her selection on the substance, but at present there is no data either way.

Perhaps specialist lawyers will have a different interpretation, but I struggle to see how offering the Minister a list of seven – or even nine  – names and saying “choose any three” is the plain meaning and intention of the legislative text (would offering a list of 50 and saying “choose three” –  if so, the provision is gutted of any meaning and protection?).  The pool of potential MPC members really isn’t that deep in New Zealand and yet –  despite the fact that the law puts the onus on the Board –  we don’t even now know whether we have the best three external people on the MPC.  If this approach is lawful, it must be borderline at best.  (There was, for example, no sign of them adopting that approach to the internal MPC appointees –  there the Minister was given a list of two names for two vacancies, the approach envisaged in the law.)

My own preferrred model remains (the more internationally common) one in which the Minister of Finance is free to appoint whomever he or she prefers to the MPC.  I would complement that with non-binding confirmation hearings of the sort used in the UK.  Under that model, responsibility for the appointment rests clearly with the Minister of Finance, and there is scope for proper parliamentary scrutiny before people take up a powerful role.      Where this (brand new) legislation ended up is that the Minister can appoint his mates, within limits (but pretty broad limits) while pretending that the real choices were made by the Board.

In the end, after months –  not at all consistent with the spirit of the OIA let alone the letter – we did get a fair bit (by no means complete) of information offering insight on the MPC selection and appointment process.  Unfortunately that information tends to cast another shadow over the process, and suggests that the Board –  whose members have no real expertise in relevant areas –  continues to see its primary role as being to accommodate and humour the Governor and, now perhaps, to accommodate and humour the Minister, all behind closed doors.

And there is, of course, also the extraordinary secrecy as to how much these (possibly) second or third XI externals are being paid.  So much for openness and transparency.