OIA obstructionism – yet more evidence for RB reform

Working my way through things that turned up while I was away, I stumbled on an impressive piece of public sector diligence.  At 3.44pm on the last working before Christmas – a time by which surely most office-bound workers had already left work for the holidays –  Angus Barclay, from the Communications Department of the Reserve Bank, responded to an Official Information Act request I’d lodged with the Bank’s Board several weeks earlier.   I was impressed that Angus had still been at work, but was less impressed with the substance of the response.

I’d asked the Board for copies of the minutes of meetings of the full Board and any Board committees in the second half of last year (specifically 1 July to 30 November).  It didn’t seem likely to be an onerous request: there would probably only have been four or five full Board meetings, and perhaps some committee minutes, all of which will have been readily accessible (in other words virtually no time all in search or compilation).    Perhaps the Board would have wanted to withhold some material, and (subject to the statutory grounds) that would have been fine.  But again, doing so shouldn’t have been onerous.   The Board, after all, exists mostly to monitor the performance of the Governor, on behalf of the public.   In an open society, it isn’t naturally the sort of material one should expect to be kept secret.

In fact, in the 22 December response I received I was informed that there were only five documents.  But I couldn’t have them.  Instead, the request was extended for almost another two months, with a new deadline of 19 February.   Oh, and they foreshadowed that they would probably want to charge me for whatever they might eventually choose to release.

Why was I asking?     After an earlier request to the Board, around the appointment of an “acting Governor”, it had come to light that there was no documentation at all around the process for the appointment of a new Governor (that had been underway in 2016, before Steven Joyce told them to stop), which in turn appeared to be a clear violation of the Public Records Act.    The process of selecting a candidate to be the new Governor is one of the Board’s single most important powers.   And yet the records showed that nothing had been documented –  to be clear (see earlier post), it wasn’t that material was withheld (for which there might well have been an arguable case), it just didn’t exist.   Following that post in May, I was interested to see whether the Board had sharpened up its act, and come into compliance with its statutory obligations.

I had some other interests, of course.   For example, in the five months covered by my request, Graeme Wheeler had finished his term, and I also wondered if there might be some insight in the minutes on the still-secret Rennie review on the governance of the Reserve Bank.

But instead I met obstruction.

There are two things that interest me about the response.  The first is that, although the request was explicitly made of the Reserve Bank Board –  which has a separate statutory existence, and whose prime function is to hold the Bank/Governor to account –  the response came from Reserve Bank staff, referencing only Reserve Bank policies and practices.  It is consistent with my longstanding claim that the Board has allowed itself to simply serve the interests of, and identify with, the Bank –  rather than, say, the Minister who appointed them, or they public whom they (ultimately) serve.

Thus, in respect of the charging threat, I received this line

The Ombudsman states on page 4 of the guidelines on charging that: “It may also be relevant to consider the requester’s recent conduct. If the requester has previously made a large volume of time-consuming requests to an agency, it may be reasonable to start charging in order to recover some of the costs associated with meeting further requests.”

I’m not precisely sure how many OIA requests I lodged with the Board last year, but I’m pretty sure it was no more than four (and one of those was to secure material that was in fact covered by, but ignored in the answer to, an earlier request).   Three of the four I can recall were simply requests for copies of minutes – with no substantial search or collation costs.  Given the uncertainty around the legality of the appointment of the “acting Governor”, major events during the year such as the Rennie review, questions around compliance with the Public Records Act, and the process of selecting a new Governor, it didn’t seem like an undue burden on the Board.

As the Ombudsman’s charging guidelines also note

Note, however, that some requesters (for example, MPs and members of the news media), may have good reasons for making frequent requests for official information, and they should not be penalised for doing so.

Since this blog is one of the main vehicles through which a powerful public agency –  Bank and/or Board –  is challenged and scrutinised, I’d say I was on pretty strong ground in my request for straightforward Board minutes.  (And just to check that the Board itself isn’t being overwhelmed with other requests, I lodged a simple further request this morning asking how many OIA requests the Board has received in each of the last two years, and copies of the Board’s procedures of handling OIA requests made of it.)

I can only assume that the Bank itself, which seems to be controllling the handling of requests made even to the Board, has gotten rather annoyed with me again, and decided to use the threat of charging as some sort of penalty or deterrent.  Longstanding readers may recall that we have been this way once before.  About two years ago, the Bank got very annoyed with me (and some other requesters) and started talking of charging left, right and centre.   Reaction wasn’t very favourable, and Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand even took to the newspapers with an op-ed defending the Bank’s stance.   There was talk of a “mushrooming” number of requests, but on closer examination even that didn’t really stack up –  the number of OIA requests the Bank received was much smaller than, say, those The Treasury received.     Explaining is (often) losing, and as I noted at the time, the Bank didn’t come out of the episode well.   As a refresher, the Bank released responses to 20 OIA requests in 2017.  The Treasury, by contrast, released responses to more than 80 OIA requests (in both agencies there will be have responses not posted on the respective websites).

But even in their defence a couple of years ago, Bascand asserted that the Bank –  no mention of the Board –  would be charging only when the requests were “large, complex or frequent”.  My latest request of the Board is neither large nor complex, and neither were the earlier requests.

Even though the Bank and the Board are not the same entities, they are clearly trying to conflate my requests to both entities.   But over the course of last year, my records suggest I lodged no requests at all with the Reserve Bank itself in the first five months of last year.    Between June and the end of the year, there seem to have been quite a few, but on topics as diverse as:

  • the new “PTA” signed by Steven Joyce and Grant Spencer,
  • the Toplis suppression affair,
  • assumptions about new government policies the Bank referred to in its latest MPS,
  • some data from an expectations survey that the Bank had not published
  • three old papers, each clearly-identified in the request,
  • a specific paper on RB governance issues explicitly mentioned in the Bank’s BIM, and
  • work on digital currencies that the Bank explicitly highlighted in a recent research paper.

All still seem like reasonable requests, of a powerful agency which has a wide range of functions.  It seems unlikely that many of them should have involved any material amount of time to search for, or collate (in fact, in response to several requests the Bank responded quite quickly and in full, prompting notes of thanks from me).   There are no requests that can reasonably be described as “fishing expeditions”, and no pattern of repeated requests for much the same information.  They seem like the sort of requests those who devised the Official Information Act might have had in mind.

Finally, it is worth noting what the Ombudsman’s guidelines suggest can and can’t be charged for (bearing in mind that very few agencies charge at all).    Agencies can, in appropriate circumstances, charge for things like

Search and retrieval 

Collation (bringing together the information at issue) 

Research (reading and reviewing to identify the information at issue) 

Editing (the physical task of excising or redacting withheld information) 

Scanning or copying

Five nicely-filed documents (Board minutes) will have taken mere minutes to retrieve, no time to copy (since they will exist in electronic form already) and no time to research.  It is conceivable that the physical task of redacting withheld information might take a little time –  but very little.

And what can’t agencies charge for at all?

Work required to decide whether to grant the request in whole or part, including:
– reading and reviewing to decide on withholding or release;

– seeking legal advice to decide on withholding or release;

– consultation to decide on withholding or release; and – peer review of the decision to withhold or release. 

Work required to decide whether to charge and if so, how much, including estimating the charge.

If the Reserve Bank or the Board think that trying to charge for five simple, easily accessible, documents is consistent with the principles of the Official Information Act, or of the sort of transparency they often like to boast of, things are even worse than I’d supposed.   And in the attempt, they will again damage their own image and reputation more than they inconvenience me.

If anything, it is further evidence of why a full overall of the Reserve Bank Act –  and of the institution –  is required.  You might have supposed that, with a review underway, the Bank and the Board would have wanted to go out of their way to attempt to demonstrate that there were no problems, no issues, in an attempt to convince the Minister to make only minimal changes, leaving incumbents with as much power and control over information as possible.  But no, instead by the words and actions they simply reinforce the case for reform, and indicate that they have little concept of what genuine public accountability means.   We should be looking for openness, not obtuseness and obstructiveness from the Bank –  whether the Governor (“acting” or permanent) or the Board, supposedly operating on our behalf to keep the Bank in check.  Once again, we don’t see what we should have the right to expect.

Perhaps, on reflection, the Bank or the Board will reconsider their wish to charge for some simple documents –  the sort of documents that should probably be pro-actively released as a matter of course.  If not, one can only assume they have something to hide.   The “good governance” former public servant in me is sufficiently disquieted about the evidence of weak or non-existent recordkeeping that I am thinking of taking further the apparent breach of the Public Records Act.  Options might include:

  • a letter to the chair of the Board, asking how the Board is assured that it is operating in compliance with the Act,
  • a letter to the Minister of Finance, asking whether (and how) he can be sure that his appointees (the Board) are operating in compliance, given past evidence of major gaps,
  • a letter to the minister responsible for the Public Records Act itself,
  • a letter to the Auditor-General expressing concerns about the evidence suggesting that the Board of the Reserve Bank is not meeting its statutory obligations under the Public Records Act.

 

As non-transparent, and obstructive, as ever

Just when you think there are the occasional promising signs that the Reserve Bank might, perhaps, be becoming a little more open…….they come along and confirm that they are just as secretive as ever.

At the last Monetary Policy Statement, the Reserve Bank indicated that it had made allowance for four (and only four) specific pieces of the new government’s policy programme.   They provided no details, beyond the barest descriptions, even though these assumptions fed directly into their projections and to the “acting Governor’s” OCR decision.  In one specific example, they indicated that they had assumed that half the planned Kiwibuild houses would displace private sector housebuilding activity that would otherwise have taken place.   That assumption directly feeds into their forecasts of resource pressures, but is also quite politically sensitive.  You might suppose that in an open democracy, a public agency that came up with such estimates would publish their workings, at least when a formal request was made.

You’d be quite wrong.  I lodged a request a few weeks ago, asking for “copies of any analysis or other background papers prepared by Bank staff that were used in the formulation of the assumptions”.  I wasn’t asking for emails back and forth between staff, and I wasn’t even asking for the minutes of meetings where these papers were discussed.  I certainly wasn’t asking for copies any other government department or minister might have supplied them.  Just the analysis and related background papers the Bank’s own staff had done.

In response –  having taken several weeks of delay –  they didn’t redact particularly sensitive items, they simply withheld everything (down to an including the names of the papers concerned).   This is, it is claimed, to “protect the substantial economic interests of New Zealand”, a claim which is simply laughable.  Protecting senior officials of the Reserve Bank from scrutiny is not, even approximately, the same thing as protecting the “substantial economic interests of New Zealand”.  It might even be less intolerable conduct if they had laid out the gist of their reasoning in the MPS itself.  But they didn’t.

Of course, it is par for the course from the Reserve Bank.  They consistently refuse to release any background papers related to the MPS, no matter how technical they might be, or how high the degree of legitimate public interest (I did once get them to release such papers from 10 years ago).  They simply have no conception of the sort of open government the Official Information Act envisages.

Reform –  including opening up the institution –  is long overdue.  I do hope that the Minister’s review of the Act is going to address these issues seriously.

And in the meantime you and I –  citizens, taxpayers, who paid for this analysis –  are left none the wiser as to why, say, the Bank thinks a 50 per cent offset is the right assumption for Kiwibuild.  Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t, but the debate –  including around monetary policy –  would be better for having the workings in the public domain.

I was tempted to reuse my “shameless and shameful” description from yesterday, but that might a) overstate slightly the true importance of this particular issue, and (b) is a description better kept today for the Prime Minister and her willed blindness to the issues around China’s interference in the domestic affairs of New Zealand.  Anything for an FTA extension, nothing for protecting the democratic institutions and values of New Zealanders.

Full letter from the Bank below.

Dear Mr Reddell

On 16 November you made an Official Information request seeking:

copies of any analysis or other background papers prepared by Bank staff that were used in the formulation of the assumptions about the impact of four specific policies of the new government (minimum wages, fiscal policy, immigration, and Kiwibuild), as published in last week’s Monetary Policy Statement.

The Reserve Bank is withholding the information for the following reasons, and under the following provisions, of the Official Information Act (the OIA):

  • section 9(2)(d) – to avoid prejudice to the substantial economic interests of New Zealand;
  • section 9(2)(g)(i) – to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through the free and frank expression of opinions by or between officers and employees of the Reserve Bank in the course of their duty; and
  • section 9(2)(f)(iv) –  to maintain the constitutional convention for the time being which protects the confidentiality of advice provided by officials.

You have the right to seek a review of the Bank’s decision under section 28 of the OIA.

Yours sincerely

Roger Marwick

External Communications Adviser | Reserve Bank of New Zealand | Te Pūtea Matua

2 The Terrace, Wellington 6011 | P O Box 2498, Wellington 6140

  1. + 64 4 471 3694

Email: roger.marwick@rbnz.govt.nz  | www.rbnz.govt.nz

 

OIA: unexpected bouquets and brickbats

I have been critical over the years of the Reserve Bank’s approach to Official Information Act requests.  I made mention of it, in passing, just this morning.   The long-established practice had been to withhold absolutely anything they could conceivably get away with, and to delay as long as possible anything they really had to release.   The presumptions of the Act (well, specific provisions actually), of course, operate in the opposite direction.

In the last couple of weeks I had lodged requests for a couple of pieces I had written while I was still working at the Bank in 2014.   One was the text of a speech, on New Zealand economic history and the evolution of economic policy, to a group of Chinese Communist Party up-and-coming officials, delivered as part an Australia New Zealand School of Government programme (in which they got to hear from John Key, Gerry Brownlee, Iain Rennie, no doubt a few others, and me).     The other was a discussion note I had written on how best to think of New Zealand’s economic exposure to China.    The second request was lodged only late on Monday.    I could not envisage any good (lawful) reason for them to withhold the material, but that often hasn’t stopped the Reserve Bank in the past.  If they released the material at all, I was anticipating a 20 working day wait.

But this afternoon, I received both documents in full.  I was shocked.  I took the opportunity to send a note to the Bank thanking them for the prompt response.  And as I have often been critical here of aspects of the Bank’s handling of various things, including OIA requests, I thought I should take the opportunity to record my appreciation openly.    Who knows what prompted the change, but it is an encouraging sign.  Perhaps the “acting Governor” (a sound caretaker, unlawful as his appointment may be) is making a positive difference?

On the other hand, I’ve usually been pretty openly positive about The Treasury’s approach to OIA requests.  One isn’t always happy with their decisions, but there is a strong sense that they generally do all they can to be as open as possible.    There is the look and feel of an agency that seeks to comply with the spirit of the Act, as well as the letter.

But not when it comes to the Rennie review.   Some time ago, they refused a journalist’s request for the terms of reference for the review.   They also refused to release some of the papers associated with the Rennie review (including drafts of the report) that I had requested some time ago .   In July they told me they wouldn’t release papers because of “advice still under consideration” (even though that is not a statutory ground, and Rennie is neither a minister nor an official, and even though I had not then requested a copy of the final report which had been delivered in April).

But time has moved on, and so early last week I lodged a fresh request.  This time I asked for:

I am requesting copies of :

  • the draft supplied to Treasury on 5 April 2017
  • the report delivered to Treasury on 18 April 2017
  • the version of the report sent out for peer review
  • the completed report incorporating any comments provided by the peer reviewers.
  • copies of comments supplied on the draft paper by peer reviewers
  • file notes of meetings Rennie or assisting Treasury staff had with non-Treasury people in the course of undertaking the review (including the Board of the Reserve Bank).

I am also requesting copies of any advice to the Minister of Finance or his office on the Rennie review, and matters covered in it, since 18 April 2017.

And this afternoon I got a response from The Treasury, refusing to release any of this material.

Their justification?

This is necessary to maintain the current constitutional conventions protecting the confidentiality of advice tendered by Ministers and officials.

That is, in principle, a valid statutory ground (unless public interest considerations trump it).  But…..Iain Rennie is not an official or a Minister, but was rather a contractor to The Treasury.

But what about the advice to the Minister himself (or his office)?  Well, according to Treasury,  “Mr Rennie’s report has not been tendered to the Minister of Finance, nor has any other Treasury advice on this issue since the report was commissioned.”

So, the report which was requested by the Minister of Finance himself (he told a journalist so in April which is how news of the review became public), which was finalised more than six months ago, has not been sent to the Minister of Finance at all, and nor has any advice from Treasury been sent.  Since oral briefings are covered by the Official Information Act, we must then assume that a notoriously hands-on minister has no idea what is in a report he requested, and which was finished six months ago.   Perhaps, but it seems unlikely.

Treasury tries to claim in its letter “that this work was commissioned to inform Treasury’s post-election advice”.  But that certainly wasn’t the impression the Minister of Finance was giving in April, when this was presented as his own initiative.   But even if that story is true, it still isn’t grounds for withholding a six months old consultant’s report paid for with public money.  It is official information, and releasing the report is not the same –  at all –  as releasing Treasury’s views on it.

There were three external reviewers of the draft report.  Comments were sought from:

  • Charles Goodhart, an academic and former Bank of England official and MPC member,
  • Don Kohn, former vice-chair of the Fed, and currently a member of the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee, and
  • David Archer, former Assistant Governor of the Reserve Bank and now a senior official at the Bank for International Settlements.

The comments of the first two are withheld on the standard ground “to maintain the current constitutional conventions protecting the confidentiality of advice tendered by Ministers and officials”, but neither Goodhart nor Kohn is either an official (of New Zealand or –  in Goodhart’s case of anywhere) or a Minister, and these are comments on a draft report I’m seeking, not something ever likely to get as far as the Minister of Finance.

Archer’s comments are withheld on different grounds:

  • “the making available of that information would be likely to prejudice the entrusting of information to the Government of New Zealand on the basis of confidence by the Government of any other country or any agency of such a Governoment or by an international organisation”

But there is no indication that Archer was commenting on behalf of an international organisation, but rather was offering personal views (rather than confidential “information”).   It isn’t, say, confidential information about the business of, say, the BIS.

  • “to protect information which is subject to an obligation of confidence where the making available of the information would likely prejudice the supply of similar information or information from the same source and it is in the public interest that such information should continue to be supplied”.

There is no evidence that (a) Archer’s comments, made presumably in a personal capacity, were subject to an “obligation of confidence”, or (b) that publishing his comments on a draft report would make him less likely to provide such comments (not clearly “information” in any case) on future Treasury consultants’ reports on Reserve Bank issues.      And nor is there any reason why this clause should apply any more to Archer’s comments than to those of Goodhart and Kohn –  for which it has not been invoked.

It is all (a) incredibly obstructive and (b) not remotely convincing.  I will be appealing The Treasury’s decision to the Ombudsman.  Perhaps some journalist might consider asking Steven Joyce if it is really true that he has no idea what is in the Rennie report that he asked for eight months ago, which was completed six months ago, and which is held by his own department.  Even if that is true, it is not good grounds under the Act for withholding a consultant’s report, let alone drafts of it.

So, well done Reserve Bank.  And it is a shame about The Treasury.

 

 

 

 

 

Bits and pieces

As regular readers will know I have been uneasy about whether the Minister of Finance’s recent appointment of Grant Spencer as acting Governor of the Reserve Bank (while pragmatic) is in fact lawful.    I dealt with the issue first on the day the appointment was announced, and again when the Bank’s Board, the Treasury, and the Minister of Finance released material in response to my OIA request.

What made me most uneasy is that there was no suggestion in any of the papers –  whether the Board’s recommendation to the Minister, the Minister’s Cabinet paper, or in any of the various Treasury papers –  that officials, the Board, or the Minister had even considered seriously the lawfulness of such an appointment.  There is no summary of any legal advice in any of the papers, and no reference to the issue.  This is so even though the Act quite clearly makes the Policy Targets Agreement (PTA) the centrepiece of the balance between autonomy and accountability, and yet it makes no reference to the possibility of a PTA in a case where an acting Governor is appointed after a Governor’s term, and that Governor’s PTA, expires.   As an expression of good intent, the Minister of Finance and the incoming acting Governor have indicated that they expect policy will continue to be conducted according to the current PTA, but……(a) the whole point of the acting appointment is that Grant Spencer will take office a few days after the election (so the current Minister of Finance may be irrelevant) and (b) none of this is legally binding, even though the monetary policy provisions of the Act are built around quite detailed, and legally binding, rules.

All three agencies/people noted that they had withheld legal advice (from the Reserve Bank’s in-house lawyer and from Crown Law).  That wasn’t a surprise.   Protection of legal professional privilege is a grounds on which material can be withheld under the OIA.  But it is not an absolute grounds, and any possibility of withholding such material on that ground must first consider whether the public interest is such that the material should be released.  Recall that the whole point of the OIA is to allow more effective public scrutinty, accountability, and participation in public affairs.

I was initially inclined to let the matter lie.   But on further reflection, and having a look at some of the material the Ombudsman has put out in recent years (and a report of an even more recent decision), in which it has been ruled that either legal advice, or a summary of it, should be released, I have decided to lodge an appeal with the Ombudsman in this case.     It isn’t a case where, for example, the legal advice is contingent on facts known only to the parties commissioning the advice.  The relevant facts are all in the public domain already.  All that is being protected is the assessment of the interpretation of legislation on which powerful government entities are acting/advising.  If their interpretation of the acting Governor provisions is robust –  and it may well be –  then the Act is less robust –  in ensuring that the monetary policy decisionmaker is at arms-length from the Minister (not eg subject to six monthly rollovers), and yet is at all times subject to a legally binding accountability framework –  than had previously been thought.     There is a clear public interest in us being aware of any analysis the government, the Board, and the Treasury are relying on in making an appointment of this sort.  They act on those interpretations, and in so doing create “facts on the ground”.

I suppose it will take some considerable time for the Ombudsman’s office to get to this request –  perhaps even after the acting Governor’s term has ended –  but with the possibility of reviews to the Reserve Bank Act governance provisions in the next couple of years, it would still be valuable for this advice and intepretation (in full or in summary) to be put in the public domain. This is, after all, about the appointment and accountability provisions for the most powerful unelected public office in New Zealand.

On another matter altogther, I noted the other day that one of my readers, and periodic commenter, Blair Pritchard had published his own set of policy proposals for New Zealand.   Blair sets out seven policy goals and 15 policy proposals under the heading What’s a platform Kiwi Millenials could all get behind?    There is lots to like in his agenda –  and he graciously refers readers to some of my ideas/analysis –  although I’m sure most people, even non-millenials,  will also find things to strongly disagree with (for me, cycleways and compulsory savings –  although I’m also sceptical of nominal GDP targeting).      But I’d commend it to readers as a serious attempt to think about what steps might make a real and positive difference in tackling the challenges facing New Zealand.  And I really must get round to a post on a Nordic approach to taxing capital income –  one of the topics that has been on my list for two years now, and never quite made it to the top.   Cutting company taxes is the headline-grabbing option, and it would make quite a difference to potential foreign investors, but for New Zealanders pondering establishing and expanding businesses here, the company tax rate is much less important than the final rate of taxation on capital income which, in an imputation system, is determined by the personal income tax scale.   The Nordic approach quite openly sets out to tax capital income more lightly than labour income.   It isn’t a politically popular direction at present, but is the direction we should be heading, if we want to give ourselves the best chance of closing those persistent productivity chasms.

 

 

Bouquets and brickbats for the ANZ

In July last year, while the Reserve Bank was consulting on the latest extension in its (seemingly) ever-widening web of controls –  this one, restricting mortgages for residential investment properties to 60 per cent LVRs –  David Hisco, the chief executive of the local arm of the ANZ bank, went very public arguing that the Reserve Bank wasn’t going far enough.

Heavily increase LVR limits for property investors. The Reserve Bank wants most property investors around the country to have 40 percent deposits in future. We think they should go harder and ask for 60 percent. Almost half of house sales in Auckland are to property investors. Taking them out of the market will be unpopular amongst investors but it may end up doing them a favour. Of course this would mean less business for us banks but right now the solution calls for everyone to adjust.

It was an interesting stance.  As I noted at the time (a) there was nothing at all to stop the ANZ tightening up its lending conditions along those lines if they thought such restriction was prudent, but (b) the ANZ’s own economics team, in a piece issued the very same week, had been less than convinced of the case for even the Reserve Bank’s own more-modest proposed restrictions.

To us, the case for requiring investors to have a 40% deposit is not overly
strong. This is particularly considering the RBNZ’s own stress tests and the fact that most investor lending was already done at sub-70 LVRs anyway.

I noted then that

There must be some interesting conversations going on at the ANZ.  It would be very interesting to see the ANZ submission on the Reserve Bank’s proposals, and if the Reserve Bank won’t release it, there is nothing to stop ANZ itself doing so.  I’ll be surprised if they do, and even more surprised if the submission recommends limiting all investors throughout the country to LVRs not in excess of 40 per cent.

The Reserve Bank has long been quite resistant to releasing submissions made on regulatory proposals –  even though if, say, you make a submission to a select committee on a proposed new law that submission will routinely, and quite quickly, be published.  Under pressure, the Reserve Bank has slowly been backing away. First, they agreed to release submissions from entities they didn’t regulate, while refusing to release anything from regulated entities (banks in this case).  They rely in their defence on a provision of the Reserve Bank Act which, even if it legally means what the Bank has claimed it does, was never intended to enable permanent secrecy for submissions on general policy proposals.  The Bank has now reviewed its stance again, and has now agreed to release/publish submissions made by regulated entities but only if those entities themselves consent (and subject to normal provisions allowing commercially sensitive information to be withheld).  Partly presumably because I had appealed to the Ombudsman over the withholding of bank submissions on last year’s extension of the LVR controls, they have now decided to apply this new stance retrospectively.

Yesterday I received a letter from the Reserve Bank

The Reserve Bank has sought the consent of the registered banks to provide to you their submissions from the consultation on adjustments to restrictions on high-LVR residential mortgage lending. We have obtained consent from ANZ Bank to release its submission to the consultation. Accordingly, the submission from ANZ Bank is being provided to you under the provisions of section 105(2)(a) of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand Act 1989.  Some parts of the submission have been redacted by ANZ Bank as a condition of its consent.

Other registered banks have not provided consent and submissions provided by other registered banks continue to be withheld

Of course, ANZ could have released the submission itself months ago, but they still deserve credit for agreeing to the release even at this late date.   I hope this move foreshadows routine willingness to allow ANZ submissions to the Reserve Bank to be published.

The ANZ stance contrasts very favourably with that of the other banks.    Given the risks of regulators and the regulated getting too close to each other, at risk to the public interest, getting the submissions of regulated entities published should be a basic feature of open government, and the continued reluctance doesn’t reflect well on either the Reserve Bank or the other commercial banks.  What do they have to hide?

Apparently the Reserve Bank will be putting a link to the ANZ submission (as redacted) on their website shortly [now there, together with all the other LVR submissions and material they’ve released over the years] but for now here it is.

anz-response-to-lvr-consultation

Perhaps to no one’s surprise, there is nothing in the submission suggesting that ANZ would have favoured a more restrictive approach (of the sort outlined by the chief executive a few weeks earlier).

anz-on-lvr

It wouldn’t have cost them anything to have advocated the chief executive’s preferred position –  after all, it wasn’t likely that the Reserve Bank would adopt it anyway –  but there is no suggestion, not even a hint, that our largest commercial bank thought the Reserve Bank wasn’t going far enough.

I noted at the time

But I don’t suppose we will actually see ANZ move to ban all mortgages for residential investors with LVRs in excess of 40 per cent.  Instead, Hisco wants the Reserve Bank to do it for him.    That would enable him to tell his Board that he simply had no choice, and provide cover when profits fell below shareholder expectations.  That should be no way to run a business in a market economy –  although sadly too often it is.

Reality seems to be even worse, in some respects.   Not only did ANZ not pull its own LVR limits back to 40 per cent, they didn’t even take the opportunity of a (then) private submission to the regulator to make their case for a tougher policy.  Instead, it looks a lot like they were just going for the free publicity of a call for bold action, while never having had any intention of doing anything about it.   It isn’t exactly straightforward.  Of course, they are free to do it if they can get away with it, but it doesn’t look like the sort of ethical behaviour we might hope for from senior figures in major financial institutions.

Although the Reserve Bank was consulting on extending LVR restrictions, quite a lot of the ANZ’s submission is devoted to what appear to be mostly sensible concerns about the possible extension of the regulatory net to include debt to income limits.  The Reserve Bank is apparently about to launch a consultation on the possible addition of debt to income limits to its “approved” tool-kit (technically it doesn’t need anyone’s approval to use them).  I hope that the forthcoming consultative document takes seriously the practical problems various people, including the ANZ, have already raised.

I welcomed the recent decision of the Minister of Finance to require the Reserve Bank to undertake public consultation now, not just at the point they want to use DTIs.  Perhaps his motivations were somewhat mixed –  there is after all an election only a few months away –  but there is probably a better chance of the Governor taking submissions seriously now than at a point when the Governor has already decided he wants to use the tool, perhaps as a matter of urgency.    Having said all that, I was a little bemused at the suggestion from the Minister that the Reserve Bank should now do a cost-benefit analysis on the use of DTIs. I’m all in favour of such analysis, and am concerned that too often there is no attempt to quantify the costs and benefits of proposed interventions, but……it isn’t clear how one can do a cost-benefit analysis on an intervention except in the specific circumstances that might arguably warrant the deployment of the instrument.  One surely needs to know the specific threat to be able to evaluate the chance that a proposed intervention might mitigate the risks?

LVR controls, regulatory philosophy (and the OIA)

I’ve had a bit of a relapse in my recovery and seem set to spend much of this week doing little more than lying on the sofa reading something not too taxing.  There are plenty of things I’d like to comment on substantively, but for now it won’t happen.

The Reserve Bank released its (latest –  third in three years) final LVR decision on Monday.  To no one’s surprise, after a sham consultation, they confirmed the Governor’s original plans, albeit with some curious refinements to the exemptions –  curious, that is, if one thinks that decisions on such things should be based on considerations – the statutory ones – around the soundness and efficiency of the financial system.

And although the lawgiver has now descended from the mountain and issued his unilateral decrees, which have the force of law, there is still no sign of a regulatory impact assessment.  There is talk in the summary of submissions that one is forthcoming, but really……when the regulatory impact assessment is published only some time after all the decisions have been made, it reveals quite how little weight the Governor seems to put on good processes.  And it is not as if the initial consultation document was sufficiently extensive and robust to cover the ground –  recall the “cost-benefit” analysis that consisted of a questionable list of pros and cons with no attempts to quantify any of them.

One of the other things I had hoped to comment on in more depth was a speech given last week by Toby Fiennes, the Reserve Bank’s Head of Prudential Supervision. on the Bank’s regulatory philosophy and supervisory practices.    It included this nice chart, outlining various aspects of financial institutions’ operations and how much, in the Bank’s judgement, they mattered to the “RBNZ and society” (as if these were the same thing) and how much they mattered to the institutions themselves.

Figure 1: Selected interests of the RBNZ, society and financial institutions

fiennes

Fiennes went on to note that the blue areas aren’t of much interest to the Bank (and don’t therefore attract much regulatory interest), while the red area are typically quite heavily and directly regulated.

But in this context, it was the comments on the green areas that caught my eye

Some things – like risk management and underwriting standards (in green) – are of strong interest to both the Reserve Bank and firms. Here we tend to use market and self-discipline. Examples of some of our supervisory practices in this area are:

  • Disclosure of credit risks;
  • Mandatory credit ratings;
  • Governance requirements; and
  • Publicly disclosed attestations by the board that key risks are being managed.

Now I know that the Bank’s prudential supervisors have never been keen on LVR restrictions, and that they are devised in a different department, but……..all controls are imposed under the same legislation –  indeed the same part of the legislation –  and by the same Governor.  And when housing loans are the biggest single component of banks’ credit exposure –  and banks have most to lose if things go wrong – and yet when the Bank has imposed three sets of direct controls on housing LVRs in three years, imposing its own judgements on underwriting standards, you might have hoped that practice and “philosophy” might have been better reconciled, or the gaps smoothed over in a speech by the Head of Prudential Supervision.

As regular readers know, I’ve been pushing to get submissions on Reserve Bank regulatory proposals routinely published.  Such publication is common practice in other areas of government, including submissions to parliamentary select committees.  If you make a submission seeking to influence public policy, that submission should generally be public as matter of course –  it should be one of the hallmarks of an open society.

Some progress has been made with the Reserve Bank.  If someone asks, they will now typically release submissions made by anyone who isn’t a regulated institution.  I asked for all the submissions on the latest LVR “proposal” to be released, and  –  as expected –  the Bank has released all those not made by banks (the regulated institutions in this proposal).  Anyone interested can find those submissions here. I have three remaining areas of concern.

The first is that release of submissions should be a routine part of the process for all consultations, not just when someone makes the effort (remembers) to ask.  The second is that on this occasion they have withheld the names of four private submitters.  As I noted, if you want to influence lawmaking, you should be prepared to have your name disclosed.  How can citizens have confidence in the integrity of lawmaking processes if they don’t know who the Bank is receiving submissions from, and what interests they may represent?  (Of course, since one of the anonymous submitters appears to have views very similar to my own, we can safely assume that that person’s views will have had no influence on the Bank.)

And the third concern is that the Reserve Bank is still consistently keeping secret the views of regulated entities (the banks in this case).  When the regulated lobby the regulator it is particularly important that citizens are able to see what arguments are being made, to ensure that the process remains robust and that the regulators are not being “captured” by their closeness to the regulated –  bearing in mind that the Bank is supposed to be regulating in the public interest, not that of banks.   As I’ve noted before, the Bank justifies withholding bank submissions on the grounds of section 105 of the Reserve Bank Act –  which they argue compels them to withhold such material.  In fact, that section of the Act gives no hint of a distinction between material received from banks and that from other parties,  If section 105 applies to submissions on proposed regulatory changes, the Bank is obliged to keep secret all submissions, not just those from banks.  As I’ve noted before, there is a good case for a small amendment to the Reserve Bank Act to make it clear that the section 105 protections do not apply to submissions on regulatory proposals and hence that banks should expect their submissions to the Reserve Bank on regulatory initiatives to be published, in just the same way that bank submissions to parliamentary select committees will generally be published.

I have appealed to the Ombudsman the Bank’s decision to withhold the bank submissions, in effect seeking greater legal clarity on what the section 105 restrictions actually apply to.  In the meantime, of course, if the banks have nothing to hide –  and I don’t imagine they really do –  they could chose to publish their submissions.  According to the Summary of Submissions “a few respondents urged tighter LVR restrictions on investors than proposed”, so perhaps the ANZ really did follow up on their CEO’s newspaper op-ed and advocate more far-reaching restrictions.  If so, citizens should have the right to know (customers might be interested to, but that is their affair).

Still abusing the Official Information Act

I still don’t have much energy back and posting next week is also likely to be light, but I didn’t want to let pass another shameless abuse of the Official Information Act.

Several weeks ago I lodged a submission with the Reserve Bank on their (long and slow) consultation on the publication of submissions to consultations.  I made the case for a default approach of full publication –  bringing the Bank into line with a widespread practice now in the rest of the public sector.  If necessary, I argued, the Bank should promote a minor legislative change that, for the avoidance of doubt, might ensure that they were fully able to release submissions on matters relating to the exercise of the Bank’s regulatory powers.

The consultation on publication of submissions was not about the exercise of regulatory powers, so there was no question that submissions to that consultation were covered by the Official Information Act.  So I lodged a request asking for copies of the submissions.

I don’t suppose they will have received that many submissions to this consultation.  Few of the submissions are likely to have been long.  The issues covered by the consultation concern the Reserve Bank only, not any other agencies, so there shouldn’t be any need for inter-agency consultation.  And of course the Act requires official information to be released “as soon as reasonably practicable”.  So my request should, quite easily, have been able to be dealt with within, say, 10 days.

But this afternoon I received this letter

Dear Mr Reddell

On 3 August 2016 you made a request  under the provisions of the Official Information Act (OIA), seeking:

“copies of all submissions received by the Reserve Bank on this consultation up to and including the close of the consultation period on 5 August 2016,” where the consultation you are referring to is the consultation on the default option for publication of submissions.

The Reserve Bank is extending by 20 working days the time limit for a decision on your request, to Friday 23 September 2016, as permitted under section 15A(1)(b) of the Official Information Act, because consultations necessary to make a decision on the request are such that a proper response to the request cannot reasonably be made within the original time limit.

You have the right, under section 28(3) of the Official Information Act, to make a complaint to an Ombudsman about the Reserve Bank’s decisions relating to your request.

Yours sincerely

Angus Barclay

External Communications Advisor | Reserve Bank of New Zealand 2 The Terrace, Wellington 6011 | P O Box 2498, Wellington 6140   +64 4 471 3698 | M. +64 27 337 1102

It isn’t the most time-sensitive request ever, and there have been more egregious Reserve Bank obstructions, but the law is the law.

Actually, I suspect they are delaying not because any “consultations” are necessary, but simply because it doesn’t suit them to release anything until they have released their own final decision.    But that isn’t a legitimate grounds for extending a request, and nor should it be.  The Bank is, of course, free to make its decision on the substance of the policy on its own timetable, but the submissions are public information.  A public institution committed to open government, transparent policymaking etc etc, would already have released the submissions.    But not the Reserve Bank.

The Ombudsman promised a few months ago to start reporting on how agencies did in responding to OIA requests.  It will be interesting to see how the Reserve Bank –  which actually does make much of its alleged openness and transparency (about stuff it doesn’t know –  the future –  rather than stuff it does know –  official information)  – scores.