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.