Finlay, the RB Board, and related matters

The Herald’s Jenée Tibshraeny had a follow-up piece this morning on the Reserve Bank Board, with some interesting new information and (what appears to be) some ministerial spin and simply avoiding straight answers.

First we learn that Byron Pepper, appointed to the Board in late June, has now stepped down from his position as a director of an insurance company (Ando) that – by the vagaries of the details of the insurance legislation – is not an institution regulated by the Reserve Bank but is nonetheless substantially owned by another insurance company which is regulated, and which provides insurance on behalf of that regulated company. Again, it wasn’t illegal for Pepper to have held those two roles simultaneously, but it was quite improper, and it reflects poorly on him, on The Treasury (which made the appointment recommendations), on the Bank (Governor and key Board members), and on the Minister of Finance that it was ever allowed to happen. Reading again through the OIA papers I got back from Robertson the other day, it appears that Rodger FInlay was on the interview panel……so perhaps we should be less surprised. It is as if they have no sense of ethics, or of conflicts of interest in any sense other than the narrowly legal.

We don’t know whether Pepper jumped (volunteered himself to step down from Ando having thought again and realised it was a very bad look for an honourable person) or was belatedly pushed (by the Minister of Finance, Orr/Quigley, or The Treasury). My money would probably be on the Minister and the Beehive but if the conflict should never have been allowed to have arisen, at least it has been sorted out.

The sheer spin comes regarding Finlay.

Here is the timeline we know:

  • back in May 2021, Finlay put himself forward for appointment to the Reserve Bank Board (that is when positions for the Transition Board and the real thing were advertised).  He was chair of NZ Post then, it owned a majority of Kiwibank then.   From the documents Robertson released, we know he then signed a conflict of interest declaration stating “I can confirm that at the time of any Reserve Bank appointment I would not have any relevant conflicts of interest”.
  • In October 2021 Cabinet agreed to appoint him to the full Reserve Bank Board from 1 July 2022, and noted that the Minister had appointed him to the “Transition Board” (formally, as a consultant to the Reserve Bank during the establishment period prior to 1 July 2022).
  • No political parties raised any objections when they were consulted, as the new law required for Board appointments.
  • During the period of the Transition Board, Finlay was participating regularly in meetings of the then Reserve Bank Board.
  • On 8 June 2022, Cabinet’s Appointments and Honours Committee considered a paper recommending Finlay’s reappointment from 1 July 2022 as chair of NZ Post
  • On 10 June I wrote a post describing as “highly inappropriate” Finlay being both a board member of the prudential regulatory authority and the chair of the majority owner of Kiwibank, 5th largest bank in the country.
  • On 13 June, Cabinet approved the reappointment of Finlay as chair of NZ Post from 1 July 2022.
  • On 13 June, according to her piece, this morning, Tibshraeny asked Robertson’s office whether Finlay’s NZ Post terms would end on 30 June 2022 (which the existing term did). Her earlier reporting suggested she had been told – either by Robertson’s office or NZ Post – that FInlay’s term was ending on 30 June.  (Those messages, highly misleading as it turns out, somewhat allayed her concerns at the time, and mine.)  
  • On 21 June, Tibshraeny’s first article on the issue appeared.
  • On the same day there is a substantive email (reproduced in my previous post) from a ministerial adviser noting media concerns,and noting what were (at very least) process weaknesses, while also noting (it seems) that it had been hoped that the Kiwibank ownership restructuring would have been sorted out and that any conflict would have gone away.
  • On 22 June, there is a letter (again reproduced in my previous post) from the Secretary to the Treasury to the Minister of Finance apologising that nothing about the actual/potential conflict of interest had been drawn to the attention of ministers either when Finlay was appointed to the Bank role (last year) or when reappointed to the NZ Post role (a week earlier).  There is no hint in that letter that the Finlay NZ Post appointment was not proceeding, McLiesh simply noting that she understood the Minister would provide the relevant information at APH that same day.
  • By 1 July, Finlay was no longer showing as Board chair on the NZ Post website.

In Tibshraeny’s article she reports these comments from Grant Robertson

finlay

No thinking person should take this as a serious response.

We don’t know quite how many days RB Board members are expected to spend (my guess perhaps 25-30 a year) but it is hard to believe he had suddenly discovered it was going to be an unusually large commitment, especially as he had already spent 9 months actively engaged in the establishment phase and had served on various other public and private boards (and he was just an ordinary Board member, not holding the more time-consuming role of chair).   And had he had any doubts any serious figure would have resolved them in his own mind before allowing his name to go forward for reappointment to the NZ Post chair role.  As late as 22 June, he had been appointed by Cabinet (presumably his NZ Post Board and management colleagues had been told), and people from the Secretary to the Treasury down were still working on the basis the Post reappointment was going ahead.   But by 1 July it wasn’t a thing.

I suppose it is always possible that (say) a serious family health emergency arose in those few days that meant he had to consider all his business and professional commitments……but (a) it appears that the NZ Post role (the one involving a serious conflict) appears to have been the only one given up, and (b) it would be quite straightforward to let something like that be known (and we’d all sympathise).  But the article goes on “Finlay hasn’t responded to the Herald’s requests for comment”.  That’s telling.

Most likely the Beehive jettisoned him at the last minute, realising that with media coverage and serious concerns being expressed by various senior figures, it was just a dreadful look heading into the new RB Board regime – when the new the rest of the Board they’d soon be announcing were in any case likely to be attacked as underqualified – and not worth going ahead with the Post reappointment.  I’ve lodged fresh OIAs with the Ministers of Finance and State-owned Enterprises to see if we can learn more.

(One might wonder, if the Beehive story is correct, why they jettisoned him from the NZ Post role rather than the Reserve Bank one.  Perhaps they reckoned it would be easier to find just another professional director for NZ Post – although none yet seems to have been appointed – plus his current term was actually expiring on 30 June.  They probably hoped to get away without people realising they’d reappointed him just a few days previously.   But don’t overlook also that if Finlay seems like a no-better-than-adequate appointee for the Board of the central bank and regulatory authority, the OIA papers make it clear how much difficulty Robertson and The Treasury had had in finding anyone half-qualified to serve, and Finlay is described on several occasions as the best on offer.)

A few other points caught my eye reading through again the OIA I received.

Treasury used two quite separate interview panels for appointing RB Board members.  For the second wave, it was mostly Treasury and Reserve Bank people doing the interviews (including Finlay himself).  But for the first round (where Finlay was chosen), they used a fairly high-powered panel, chaired by government favourite Brian Roche.

Among the interview panel was the Secretary to the Treasury. I was astonished to find that (so Treasury reported) she was on the panel because the Governor had asked for her to “reflect the seniority of the positions” (shame about that looking at what we ended up with), and “to provide gender representation”.  Poor her, picked for purely tokenistic reasons.

But what really caught my eye was the presence of the head of the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority, Wayne Byres, on the interview panel.   Frankly, that seemed a little odd, for several reasons.  First, one of the main relationships the Reserve Bank has to manage is that with APRA, and there will often – particularly at times of stress – be conflicting national interests.  Second, APRA doesn’t operate with a part-time non-executive board (the sorts of role this interview process was selecting).   But more generally, APRA is a pretty well-regarded organisation, and one might have hoped that having him on the panel would ensure at least one “adult in the room”, who really knew his stuff on the prudential side of what the Bank Board would be responsible for.      And yet there is no sign that Wayne Byres, chair of a well-regarded prudential regulatory agency, had any qualms about appointing to the board of the prudential regulator, the chair of the majority owner of the 5th largest bank in the country.     If he knew, did he really not care (there is no hint in any report to the Minister of any concerns being raised), and if he didn’t, how can it be that Treasury (providing the Secretariat to the process) or the Bank did not tell him?   I suppose the head of APRA doesn’t need to know much about NZ-only banks, but it seems like a failure all round (including on his part, as the most prudential governance attuned person in the room) not to have found out, not to have raised concerns.

And finally, the saddest thing about reading through the OIA papers was the gradual diminution in ambition as (presumably) it became clear that (a) it was getting really hard to find any capable people even willing to put their names forward, and (b) that the government/Minister just didn’t really care about the substance at all.

In what comes of not tidying one’s desk very often, I noticed a weathered copy of the newspaper advert from April/May 2021 for directors (transitional and permanent) sitting by my computer.  Among the things they were looking for were these

board advert

Good stuff you might say. 

But by February, from a report to the Minister they were reduced to this

Feb Board

and by April, as they were closing in on the final list of those who were actually appointed, we get this summary

april board

Perhaps a bit overqualified for a high-decile school board of trustees, and touching all sorts of political bases, but with no sign that any of them meet those ambitious “domain experience” goals once so prominent in their advertising. Oh, and no sign of any who are “visionary and influential with an international perspective and an awareness of global trends relative to the Bank’s operating environment and mandate”. The least underqualified would be the chair, but he was appointed only for a transitional two-year term. Here I might briefly disagree with Tibshraeny, who describes Finlay and Pepper as the two Board members with “the most experience when it comes to financial policy”: in fact, although both have worked in financial institutions, neither has any apparent background in prudential or related policymaking, financial stability etc, at all

As for “strong ethics” and “experienced in managing conflicts of interest” we ended up with two directors appointed who had clear and evident ongoing conflicts of interest, one of whom was involved in selecting the other. Are these really fit and proper people to be regulating and holding to account financial institutions (and those who run them), let alone the Governor? (And as a reminder, the Board is responsible for appointing and holding to account the Governor and the Monetary Policy Committee: they appear woefully underpowered when it comes to either aspect of their role.)

Then again, neither the Governor, the chair of the Board, the Minister of Finance, the Secretary to the Treasury, nor the Treasury staff charged with doing the donkey-work and actually managing these processes, seems to have seen any problem. Those asked don’t seem interested in straight answers or accountability either. And that should be even more concerning, as a reflection of what public life and governance in New Zealand seems to be becoming like.

Rodger Finlay revisited (2)

Further to my post this morning, I’ve read a few more of the papers a bit more carefully.

It is still clear that when Rodger Finlay was appointed last October to the “transitional board” of the Reserve Bank and (from 1 July 2022) to the full Reserve Bank Board that no one (Treasury, Reserve Bank, Minister of Finance) seems to have been bothered by the stark conflict of interest between his twin roles as NZ Post chair (majority owner of 5th biggest bank in New Zealand) and the proposed role on the Board of the prudential regulatory authority. Any conflict was sufficiently unimportant (in the eyes of officials) that discussions were not documented, and ministers were not even advised of the issue in the relevant Cabinet and Cabinet committee papers.

To be fair, at that point it appears that Finlay’s term as NZ Post chair expired in the first half of 2022. But there seems to have been no discussion as to whether he would be reappointed, presumably because no one was bothered about the conflict. That reflects poorly on all involved – Treasury and Reserve Bank officials (junior and very senior), the chair of the Reserve Bank Board, Grant Robertson, and of course Finlay himself. A fit and proper person for the Reserve Bank Board role – the standard regulators apply to private sector appointees – would have immediately recognised the conflict (real and apparent) himself and made it clear that he could do one or other role but not both. Oh, and as I noted this morning, none of the other parties in Parliament raised any objections, or asked any questions, when Robertson consulted them about the RB Board appointment (as his new legislation required him to do).

I wrote my first post on the Finlay issue on 10 June 2022. It was the first piece drawing attention to the issue.

But it turns out that on 8 June 2022, Finlay’s reappointment as chair of the NZ Post board had been considered at the Cabinet’s Appointments and Honours Committee. His reappointment was confirmed at the full Cabinet on Monday 13 June 2022. In other words, just three weeks before the new Reserve Bank Board took office (and legal responsibility for bank supervision and prudential regulatory policy). And again, (other) ministers were not advised of the conflict (not even to note that a potential one had been recognised and arrangements were in place to manage it).

By this time, I’d had numerous emails from former senior central bankers astonished that the government was putting the chair of Kiwibank’s majority owner on the Reserve Bank Board. But apparently no ministers were at all bothered, as the reappointment to the NZ Post Board from 1 July 2022 was confirmed.

We know all this because a week or later there is a letter of apology from the Secretary to the Treasury to the Minister of Finance.

We know the reappointment was done on 13 June from this extract from a Cabinet paper from the acting Minister of State-Owned Enterprises

Poor Cabinet members. (Perhaps some should read my blog).

It does get worse. A journalist at the Herald had got interested in the story, and her story on Finlay ran on 21 June. For that story, she had asked around and had been told that Finlay’s term as chair of NZ Post was ending on 30 June 2022. As her story noted (and as I and other accepted) if so that made the situation less bad than it had first appeared, since although Finlay would have been on the transition board (and attending real RB Board meetings) while also chair of NZ Post he would not in fact be in both substantive roles at the same time.

That looks a lot like an active attempt by someone to mislead, since Finlay’s reappointment as NZ Post chair had been signed off by Cabinet on the 13th.

In the end it may be that what happened was more slipshod than a total abandonment of standards. That is suggested by this email dated 21 June (the day the Herald story appeared).

It seems likely, after last week’s announcement, that the redacted passages refer to the restructuring of the ownership of Kiwibank. After that restructuring is completed, and the Crown becomes the Kiwibank owner directly, there would be no conflict of interest between positions on the NZ Post and Reserve Bank Board. But that restructuring was only finally announced in mid August.

Slip-ups happen, but we should not skate over this one too quickly: Finlay’s reappointment to the Post position had occurred just a few days previously when presumably all involved at Treasury (and in the relevant ministers’ offices) knew that the ownership restructuring was not anywhere near announced, let alone done. That they failed to discuss the issue among themselves, that key figures failed to alert ministers and ministers to alert Cabinet, seems just consistent with the slack approach that had been taken on Finlay’s conflicts right back to October 2021. We don’t know whether the Governor knew of the Kiwibank ownership reshuffle plans, but either way there was still an onus on any Governor at all serious about avoiding actual or perceived conflicts, in the shiny new governance model, to have stamped his feet and insisted that Finlay’s situation be resolved. And, of course, there was Finlay himself – who, as far as we know, neither expressed nor felt any concerns.

The evidence suggests that sometime between 22 June and the end of the month Roger Finlay’s reappointment as chair of NZ Post was reversed. Perhaps ministers came to their senses and insisted on a rethink. Just possibly Finlay chose to stand down (the former seems more likely, since it is likely that the Herald story was the first time other ministers (including the PM) and their political advisers became conscious of the conflict issue, while Finlay had known of it for many months). In any case, by 1 July 2022, Finlay was no longer showing on the NZ Post website as board chair.

It all ends less badly than it might have, but it really should not be an acceptable standard of conduct from the Secretary to the Treasury, the Governor of the Reserve Bank, the Minister of Finance, or (now making regulatory policy including on fit and proper people in regulated institutions) Rodger Finlay. The twin appointments were never illegal (but should have been) but simply not being illegal does not make behaviours or appointments not improper. It is hard to think of any serious central bank anywhere where the possible twin government appointments (chairing the owner of a bank and serving on the regulatory authoritiy board) would be treated in such a slack and cavalier way.

Rodger Finlay revisited

This short post is mainly for those readers who don’t follow me on Twitter.

You may recall that a couple of months ago I highlighted as being highly inappropriate the appointment to the new board of the Reserve Bank (and the establishment “transitional board”) of Rodger Finlay, who was also chair of the state-owned enterprise New Zealand Post, which in turn was the majority owner of Kiwibank, the 5th largest bank in New Zealand.

The appointment was not illegal – itself a serious weakness in the new Act – but was clearly highly inappropriate in that the new Board was picking up responsibility for prudential supervision, most notably of banks.

When a couple of journalists got interested in the story, we were given to understand that Finlay’s term as chair of NZ Post would expire on 30 June 2022, and as the new Board only took legal responsibility for the Reserve Bank from 1 July 2022, that seemed to allay at least some concerns (about the situation looking ahead), even though it was clear that Finlay had been fully and extensively engaged with the activities of the Bank and the old Board during his “transition board” term, while serving as chair of Kiwibank’s majority owner,

Later that month, the rest of the appointees of the new Board were finally announced. It was a seriously underwhelming group of people, few of whom came anywhere near the sort of standard one should expect on the board charged with such considerable powers, including around the appointment and review of the Monetary Policy Committee. I lodged various Official Information Act requests for background material on the Board appointments, and this morning got back a (long) response from the Minister of Finance.

There might be a fuller post at a later date, but skimming through the documents, this succession of tweets (typos and all) captured the initial concerning aspects I spotted.

The key concern, at least to my mind, is that the papers make it clear that it was always intended that Finlay would continue serving as NZ Post chair (owner of Kiwibank) even once the new RB Board, on which he was serving making regulatory policy, took formal office, and that those who asked about this appear to have been actively misled.

It is concerning that this conflict was never drawn to the attention of Cabinet members considering the appointment, but that process failure itself appears to be primarily a reflection of the deeper problem that neither The Treasury nor the Reserve Bank appear to have considered the conflict to have mattered, either substantively or in appearance terms. There is text in the OIA release suggesting that Treasury and RB staff had discussed the matter at an early stage, but it doesn’t appear to have been treated very seriously in that there was no file note or record of those discussions kept, and no evidence of any discussion of the issues or risks with the Minister. The papers suggest they were having a great deal of difficulty getting able people to even consider appointment, and perhaps that meant standards slipped. They shouldn’t have.

Finally, one of the things that has interested me about the new RB legislation was the addition of the requirement that other parties in Parliament be “consulted” before Board appointments (including of the Governor) are made. In the release, there is a record of letters of consultation being sent to the other parties in Parliament. Sadly, there is no sign that any party raised any concerns about the Finlay appointment even though his chairmanship of NZ Post was explicitly mentioned in each of the consultation letters. I’ve been sceptical that the consultation requirement would mean anything much in practice, but it is sobering that no other party even appears to have raised the conflict of interest issue re Finlay, even when the letter was right in front of them. (For the record, National and ACT did send brief responses back to the Minister raising concerns about the later block of appointees announced in June.)

UPDATE: A further post on the same issues.

The new Reserve Bank Board

The Minister of Finance yesterday afternoon finally announced the rest of the members of the new Reserve Bank Board that takes office, under its new authorising legislation, today. In my post earlier this week, I highlighted a number of weaknesses in the legislation around the (dis) qualifications of the Governor and other Board members. None of the appointments to the Board appear to be in breach of the Act, but several are questionable on various counts, and taken together (and one should think about the composition of the Board as a whole) the new Board represents a poor, and grossly inadequate, start to the new regime. It could have been a great opportunity for a really impressive fresh start for the governance of the Bank. Instead, the Orr-Robertson degrading of the Bank continues.

As one gets older, rose-tinted glasses about aspects of the past are a risk. I do recall a time when the Reserve Bank Board had some really impressive people on it (mostly credit to Roger Douglas). But the dominant story over the almost 90 years the Bank has existed hasn’t been of impressive people being appointed to non-executive roles on the Board. In making appointments, at least since the government took full ownership of the Bank in 1936, political debts have always been paid or political loyalties rewarded – at times, past, present, and future overtly political figures have been appointed (and I even found one member who’d been a Communist Party donor), and the general quality has ebbed and flowed. One member I’m aware of – whom I gather turned out to make a reasonable contribution – was appointed mostly to spite a then Governor who vehemently objected to an economist the Minister wanted to appoint. There have been a handful of people with relevant subject expertise, some people good at asking (awkward) questions, and the time-servers and middling sorts who populate the myriad of boards and committees governments have to fill.

But – and it is an important but – none of them ever mattered very much. From the late 30s to 1990 it was clear that if the Board was the governing authority of the Bank as an entity (“the Board was the Bank” was used to say), most everything that really mattered about what the Bank did was decided – quite properly under the then-legislation – by the Minister of Finance and/or the Cabinet. That included policy, implementation, and key personnel (Governor and Deputy Governor). No doubt there were plenty of things for the board to do in that era – administration, buildings, staff etc – but it wasn’t the stuff we set up the central bank for. And from 1990 to yesterday, the Board had little say over anything much (not even the pay and rations stuff) but established as an monitoring and accountability body almost exclusively. It wasn’t quite that narrow, in that a person could only be appointed or reappointed as Governor if recommended by the Board.

As the overhaul of the legislation got underway, more recently people could only be appointed to the MPC on the recommendation of the Board, but OIA documents show that when the MPC was established they did not recommend names to the Minister but presented a list and said to Robertson “you pick”. This was the same Board that had got together with the Governor and Minister and put in place a blackball on the appointment to non-executive positions of anyone with actual hard expertise in monetary policy.

What of the new legislation. There have already been attempts at spin.

Thus, we have this from the Minister of Finance

The Board’s remit does not cover monetary policy, which remains solely the role of the Monetary Policy Committee.

And it is certainly true that the Board members do not get to set the OCR or publish projections. But as the Bank now points out on its website. “collective duties of the Board” now include

  • reviewing the performance of the Monetary Policy Committee and its members.

And it is the Board that has to recommend a person to be appointed (or reappointed) as Governor, and has to recommend appointees for the Monetary Policy Committee. It also has the responsibility to recommend removal of these people if they are not adequately doing their jobs.

In the Bank’s Annual Report (sec 240) they are specifically required to include

(m) a statement as to whether, in the board’s opinion, the MPC and the members of the MPC have adequately discharged their respective responsibilities during the financial year (see section 99); and
(n) a description of how the board has assessed the matter under paragraph (m)

And that is just monetary policy. The Board also now has all the powers the Governor previously had on prudential regulatory matters (mostly banks, but including non-bank deposit-takers, insurers, payment system infrastructures), New Zealand’s physical currency, a large balance sheet. And there are a number of grey areas in the Act of matters which in my view really should be matters for the MPC, but seem to be matters for the Board. You will recall the big disputes a few years ago about the Governor’s ambitions to dramatically increase capital ratios: such things are now the responsibility of the Board. And recall that the whole point of the new Board model was to reduce the single-person risks inherent in the previous legislation (so don’t anyone think about running a “oh, none of this matters as the Governor runs things” response).

So lets look at the make-up of the Board.

Take the Governor first (and note the oddity of the new legislation where on paper the Governor is a totally dominant figure on monetary policy, but just another board member on the Bank’s other major policy/regulatory functions). With the best will in the world, no one would argue that Adrian Orr is a leading figure in either monetary policy or financial stability functions. With a really really impressive chief executive, the rest of the Board can matter a little less – but the best people need hard and informed questioning. All the signs suggest an undisciplined and petulant figure who just isn’t overly interested in the core responsibilities of the Bank – and that would be consistent with his record of speeches over his four years in office.

Then we have the chair, Neil Quigley, who was an economics academic and is now Vice-Chancellor of Waikato University. Quigley has been on the Board for more than a decade, has been chair since 2016 (and thus presumably bears the greatest responsibility for Orr, and what followed). But as I discussed yesterday in all those years on the Board there has been little sign of serious and hard challenge and scrutiny, and despite Quigley’s academic background there isn’t much sign these days of someone devoting a lot of time to keeping abreast of the literature on financial stability and regulation. How could he? Most would have thought a university vice-chancellor role in these difficult times would itself be at least a fulltime job. Quigley’s appointment appears to be a transitional one (to 30 June 2024), and his replacement would be a key opportunity for any new government taking office after next year’s election that was serious about restoring the authority, reputation etc of the Bank.

It is downhill from there with the rest of the Board. Taking them in alphabetical order

All laudable no doubt, but not a shred of a sign of suitability to be a board member of New Zealand’s prudential regulator or to be choosing appointees to the MPC and evaluating the performance of the MPC.

I’ve discussed Finlay previously. We can be relieved that his terms as NZ Post chair (owning Kiwibank and Kiwi Wealth) ended yesterday. He should never have been actively involved in Reserve Bank affairs while chairing the owner of a major bank. But that is now over, and we are left with someone who looks like a pretty generic professional director and accountant. Perhaps, and despite his past (what ethics does he display in having accepted the RB/NZ Post conflict), he could be a perfectly adequate director of yet another government body. But it isn’t evident there is any expertise or experience in monetary policy, prudential regulation, financial stability etc.

Higgins appears to be wholly and solely a diversity hire. Her background is all very interesting, perhaps even laudable, but…..this is the central bank and prudential regulatory agency, and there is not a shred of relevant background or qualifications – any more than a professor of Latin and university bureaucrat would typically have.

Paterson is another carryover from the old board. Perhaps she is just excellent (but remember all those questions we didn’t find in the Board minutes to now) but she is a pharmacist turned generic company director. There is a place for such people, perhaps even a couple on a central bank board, but subject matter expertise and energy on such matters seems less than evident.

Pepper seems to be the only appointee with recent practical exposure to financial markets. On paper he looks like he could be quite a reasonable appointment to the FMA Board (perhaps a swap with Professor Prasanna Gai who is on the FMA but has expertise and experience that would be very valuable on the Bank’s Board or MPC). But the Bank’s Board is more about financial institutions than about wholesale markets and it isn’t evident he has much knowledge about institutions, the sort of risks that threaten them, or about financial regulatory policy – let alone being particularly fit for evaluating MPC members.

And then there is that insurance company he recently became a director of. According to the Minister

Mr Pepper is a director at Ando Insurance Group Ltd, but that role is not expected to create a conflict of interest as Ando is a non-regulated company.

The problem is that when you look up that company it is described as almost 40 per cent owned by a foreign insurer which is regulated by the Reserve Bank, and Ando describes itself as writing its insurance business for that regulated company. I don’t know either the business or the law enough to know why Ando itself is not regulated by the Reserve Bank, but on what we do know the appointment, while lawful, seems pretty questionable, and not (especially after Finlay) a great way to start a shiny new Board and governance model. One wonders what Treasury made of it when they provided advice to the Minister on appointees. (Or, indeed, the other political parties when, as the law now requires, they were consulted.)

Raumati-Tu’ua (who seems to be a qualified accountant) is another of those generic professional directors. As I said earlier, there is a place for a couple of them on the Board, but there is no relevant subject matter expertise at all.

For the most part I am not suggesting that as individuals these people are unsuited to being on a mixed Board (although Higgins appears utterly unqualified, and Pepper questionable on ethical grounds), but what you end up with is a Board that is deeply unimpressive and really unfit for anything like the role the legislation envisages for the Board of the Reserve Bank. There is no one with any real expertise or authority in banking, no one with any real expertise on financial regulatory matters, no one who really seems fit (or ready) to be holding the MPC to account or making good choices about who should go on the MPC in future. And, perhaps a little surprisingly given the limited pool of expertise locally and the risks of too inward loking an approach, there is no one from abroad. As a group – however nice, and perhaps able they each are in their own fields – they simply aren’t up to what the job should entail, and that against the background on an inexperienced and underqualified senior management team. One can only imagine the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority people reading of these appointments with some mix of despair and bewilderment while – condescendingly, but as they are prone to – suggesting that fortunately it doesn’t matter too much as APRA does the prudential supervision that really counts for New Zealand. That model – wind up and turn things over to APRA – was rejected (and rightly) by Michael Cullen almost 20 years ago, but his successor seems to be going for the worst of all worlds -a a bloated and expensive central bank of our own, led by people who do not warrant any great level of confidence in their individual or collective capabilities in the role they have taken up.

If there is a National/ACT government after the election it will have to make it a matter of priority to begin a far-reaching overhaul of the Reserve Bank (management and governance) to reverse the increasingly embarrassing spectacle of sustained institutional decline.

Meanwhile, of course, under the new law, the Minister of Finance was required to consult with other political parties on proposed appointees. It is a relatively unusual provision which Labour chose to put in the law, presumably intended to single their seriousness about a high quality Board that was broadly not too unacceptable across party lines (consistent with that, these appointees do not serve at will and can be removed only for cause – not including being ill-qualified in the first place). One wonders what National and ACT (in particular) said when the Minister consulted? Perhaps there were worse names on an original list. Perhaps the parties never bothered objecting, or perhaps they did object and Robertson just pushed on through anyway. Perhaps the relevant spokespeople could tell us?

I have lodged a series of OIA requests with the Minister, The Treasury, and the Reserve Bank to get a better insight on the process leading to those appointments, including the consultation with other parties.

End of an era

Today marks the end of an era at the Reserve Bank, as the last of the “Governor as single decisionmaker” model is dismantled, and tomorrow the new Board takes over the primary responsibility for the Bank’s affairs. The single decisionmaker model was an experiment, but with time it was increasingly apparent that it was a poor one, increasingly unfit for purpose. No other country reforming its central banking and bank etc regulatory arrangements followed us. It is to the government’s credit that they have moved the governance model for the Reserve Bank back towards the international mainstream (even if the specifics of the 2018 and 2021 are less than ideal, and in some respect a dog’s breakfast).

(NB note that most of the new Board, to take up office tomorrow, has not yet been appointed – or at least announced. With the new Board reportedly supposed to be meeting tomorrow, perhaps there is some launch announcement planned, but it is all a bit strange and not really that satisfactory.)

In this post I wanted to focus, perhaps for the last time (although they still apparently have an Annual Report to come), on the old Board. This should be the last day we see this graphic topping the Bank’s “Our Board of Directors” page

For 32+ years, taxpayers have paid a Board to (come for lunch and the cocktail do and) monitor and hold to account the Governor (and more latterly the MPC). They controlled who could be appointed as Governor and to the MPC, and – consistent with those accountability responsibilities – could recommend dismissal. The rules and responsibilities have changed a bit over time. For the first decade or more, the Governor chaired the Board, and even though there was a non-executive directors committee that was supposed to do the holding to account, the messaging implied by the structure wasn’t exactly crystal clear. And it wasn’t until about 20 years ago that the Board was required to make its own (public) Annual Report, but even then not very much changed – and consistent with that general observation, the Board’s report was buried in the midst of the (Governor-controlled) Bank Annual Report and was given no publicity when the Bank released its Annual Report.

There have been some able people on the Board at various times over the years. And some awkward people (the two may even have overlapped), but the institutional incentives very quickly developed into a model that meant few hard questions really got asked, little serious scrutiny happened, and the public never got any serious insight from the Board’s activities on their behalf (the Board, after all, had access to papers the Bank jealously guards for years and years after they were relevant, and can engage and challenge the Governor and other decisionmakers). I say “very quickly developed” because in the earliest years of the regime there was a view – shared by the Governor – that the inflation targeting governance regime was relatively mechanical and that a Governor might reasonably expect to lose his/her job if inflation overshot the target range. The first (apparent) breaches in about 1995 prompted some hard questions, some letters to the Minister, but eventually a recognition that the whole thing involved a lot more judgement and discretion if sensible policy was to ensue. There was a recognition that the target was something to be “constantly aiming at”.

Unfortunately for the Board, had they ever aspired to do the job really well they didn’t have the resources to do so. It became customary to have one professional economist on the Board (first Viv Hall, then Arthur Grimes, more recently Neil Quigley), but Board members didn’t get paid much themselves, had no direct access to staff resources, had no budget to commission independent professional advice, and their own Secretary was for the most of time a senior staffer of the Governor. Board meetings occurred on Bank premises, and one entered the Board room past the row of oil paintings of former Governors. And once the Board got its own chair – chosen by them, not the Minister – for 13 years they opted to have as their chair former RB staffers, first Arthur Grimes, and second Rod Carr. Most of the Board members knew about being on corporate boards – where they had decision-making powers – and so there seemed to be a tendency to default towards the sorts of issues they might have dealt with as corporate board members. Monetary policy and financial stability/regulation were not high among them. Arms-length challenge and scrutiny also weren’t really among those functions – on a corporate board, the board has far more ownership of the firm’s strategy (something the Act never envisaged for the RB – the Board had no say, for example, in Policy Targets Agreements or the conduct of monetary policy).

And so acting as cover for management seems to have become the default mode – most especially externally but, as far as we can tell, often internally as well. Some Board members had their own agendas – some more laudable than others – but there was never much sign of a sustained effort to hold the Governor and Bank to account, to act as if they represented the government and people of New Zealand rather than the Bank management (notably whoever was the Governor at the time). At times, their Annual Reports even talked about helping with the Bank’s external relations (for example, at the functions held around Board meetings outside Wellington).

I could develop some anecdotes at length, including for example, the board member who used to ring me up (while I was still on staff) for inside angles on monetary policy and the Governor, at a time when that member was attempting to mark out an independent position (oops, he is now the Board chair). But I’ll largely leave it at that. I don’t think anyone – perhaps with the exception of some individual Board members – thinks the Board ever really did the job it was designed for. You could be attacked in public by the Governor – for exposing an OCR leak, resulting from weak management systems – and an approach to the Board still resulted only in them gathering in behind the Governor. Are we to suppose it was any different when Orr was attacking his critics around the bank capital plans in ways that few regarded as represented expected conduct from a Governor?

But what interested me was how they had handled the events of the last year or so. The Bank has run up massive losses on the LSAP. Inflation – headline and core – has shot through the top of the target range. All in all it is has been one of most interesting – and surely questionworthy – periods in the 30 years the Board had the monitoring and accountability responsibility. You might think the outgoing Board would want to end well.

A while ago I lodged an OIA requesting the Board minutes for the period November 2021 to April 2022. About the time those results came back I found on the Bank’s website the results of someone else’s OIA for the minutes for September to November 2021. So we have a run of several months of minutes, over a period when things moved a lot on monetary policy (actual inflation, the OCR, forecast inflation – oh, and those LSAP losses). We might have hoped for a lot of evidence of hard questioning, challenge, and serious scrutiny.

Well, might have if we had known nothing of the previous 30 years.

The Bank – or Board – is relatively open in what they release, so we get a good sense of the complete minutes. There are some questions about what they write down, but even there they seem to have improved (relative to earlier concerns that in some areas they were in flagrant breach of the Public Records Act).

What do we learn?

The first meeting was in early September, not long after the August MPS (which itself came the day after the lockdown was announced). The minutes are seven pages long, and we learn a fair bit about the People and Culture report, the Enterprise Risk Management report, the Governor’s activities, and even the RB superannuation scheme (which the Board had some particular non-statutory responsibilities for). Monetary policy gets half a page

Only one Board member is reported as saying anything (“noted” not exactly being a strong form of questioning) and none seems to have challenged the (soon to be restructured out) Chief Economist’s view that the Bank had plenty of time and didn’t need to act (much/) until it had a seen a full 12 months of data. The Governor – the most influential MPC member – is not reported as having said anything.

The late-October meeting minutes took eight pages. We learned quite a lot of various administrative and/or extraneous matters, including the Bank’s climate change strategy. There was quite a discussion on the forthcoming FInancial Stability Report, but no sign of any serious challenge or scrutiny from Board members, on requests for follow-up papers etc. And then we got to monetary policy, the OCR having just been raised for the first time.

I’m sure it was all very pleasant, but there is no sign of any hard questioning about immediately relevant issues (or perhaps the Public Records Act is being ignored again). No one seems to have challenged them as to whether, just possibly, if inflation was already above the midpoint and employment at or above midpoint, and forecasters had been taken considerably by surprise, whether a more aggressive stance might be warranted. No one seems to have challenged Ha on his complacent comment the previous month, despite (presumably) just having confirmed those minutes.

At the November meeting there appears to have been no discussion of monetary policy at all (although the Board was at pains to stress the importance of the outgoing Board having time to prepare their final Annual Report). Not a word. And, of course, still no mention at all of those mounting LSAP losses – and the Board is supposed to have been agents of the minister and the public, not of the Governor.

For the December meeting this is what the minutes record

All of which may have made for quite an interesting discussion, but as the Governor is recorded pointing out, monetary policy has to act given what is happening to fiscal policy (fiscal policy is not something the Governor or Board are responsible for). But there is no sign of any unease, of even a single Board member challenging the Bank to show that it was on the right track or that inflation would come out something like forecast. There is just no sense of holding powerful decisionmakers to account in particularly troubling times. Just a chat, with one’s friends and colleagues.

At the February meeting, this is all there was about monetary policy

Again interesting (if brief) but with not the slightest sense of unease or challenge, no pressure on the Governor or his colleagues.

In March

Were some future historian to stumble across these minutes, but not the relevant parts of the Act, they might have assumed that the Board had just a right to be briefed, but no responsibility for ensuring the Governor and the MPC are held to account.

And finally in this sequence, the April meeting

It is, I’m sure, interesting enough, but it scarcely counts as evidence of accountability.

Now, it is always possible that there are secret unrecorded discussions (in breach of the Public Records Act). The other OIA requester asked for a copy of one of the Board’s reports to the Minister, which the Board/Bank adamantly refused to release

That should be unacceptable: the Governor and MPC are statutorily accountable via the Board, and the idea that management might refuse to supply information to the Board because the Board’s report – even with some redactions – to the Minister might be released (with some lag) should have been unacceptable. But we needn’t worry that there might be anything very revealing in such a report: take a look at the March Board extract above, and you’ll see they record there that they were going to tell the Minister all was fine.

At one level, knowing what we do as to how the Board has operated over 30 years, none of this should be too surprising. But it doesn’t reflect well on them (any of them). We have a chair presumably focused mostly on working with the Governor to see in the new act (questionable appointments and all), and so hardly likely to make himself awkward on current monetary policy, and other Board members with neither the expertise, inclination, nor institutional culture to ask hard questions. But still….across all those months

  • no record of a single hard question,
  • no sign of any sustained engagement at all with the external MPC members (whom they are supposed to individually hold to account)
  • no requests for supplementary papers,
  • no suggestions of commissioning independent analysis,
  • not a single mention  of the huge (and mounting over this period) LSAP losses,
  • no suggestion of any regrets about anything.

It is easy to be inured to flawed frameworks and the weaknesses they generate, but this really isn’t good enough.  These people took the taxpayers’ money (no much admittedly, but they each took the deal) and seem barely to have been focused at all on their monetary policy accountability duties, through one of the biggest monetary policy disruptions for decades.   Perhaps I should ask for the minutes of meetings of the previous 20 months, but it would be a real surprise if anything had been different then.

The Bank itself appears little better, since there is no evidence in any of these minutes of robust or independent analyses and reviews of what had gone well, and what badly, why for examples forecasts had been so wrong, and what lessons staff and management had taken.  And so we are in the weird position  that the Bank has a consultation paper out at present on the future Monetary Policy Remit, and yet tells us that the review they are finally doing of the last couple of years stewardship may not even be released before the second round of consultation closes.

The Board has proved useless. It was always likely given the incentives and flawed structures, but that is no excuse for any of the members.  The job was there to be done, and they have not been doing it (most notably over the dramatic times of the last 12 months).

The end of the era will be no loss.  We can only wait and watch and see how the new Board does –  when the Minister finally manages to dredge up enough people willing to do the job to get a full complement on board.  

Questionable provisions in the new RB Act

On Friday (1 July) the new Reserve Bank legislation comes fully into effect. The new Reserve Bank Board takes over from the Governor personally as the key governing body of the Bank, on all matters other than the conduct of monetary policy (but even there they have a big influence on the composition of the MPC). A member of the outgoing (advisory) Board told us – he sits on the RB pension fund trustees as, for my sins, do I – that the new Board is having its first meeting on Friday. And yet today is Tuesday and we still don’t know who is being appointed to this (on paper) powerful government board. Every Tuesday for the last couple of months I’ve checked Grant Robertson’s Beehive page, and still there is no announcement.

The Governor is a Board member ex officio. And several months the Bank slid onto their website the information that two members of the existing Board (including the chair) and one new person had been appointed to a “transition board” and would be appointed formally to the new Board. But the same web page still says

Neither the government nor the Bank seem to have been entirely straight on the matter, since an OIA release of Board minutes says that Suzanne Snively has also been appointed to the transition board, and has been attending meetings of the outgoing board. It is a curious appointment, both for her age (I’m not keen on a trend towards US-style gerontocracies) and for the fact that it is almost 40 years since Roger Douglas first appointed her to the Reserve Bank Board (back in the previous era when the Board held the formal powers). Media reports suggest she fell out with Douglas, and is much more ideologically aligned with the current version of the Labour Party and its not-Douglas Minister of Finance.

The other newbie we know about is Rodger Finlay. I wrote about his appointment a few weeks ago and there has since been some media coverage. Recall that the Bank was quite open in advertising that Finlay had been appointed to the transition board and was being appointed to the full Board even though he is chair of NZ Post, majority-owner of a New Zealand bank (Kiwibank) that just happens to be the weakest of the large banks in the system. The unadorned label “He is currently Chair of New Zealand Post” is still there this morning.

It was a highly inappropriate appointment, even though in response to questioning from a journalist the Minister of Finance’s office eventually advised that Finlay was ending his term with NZ Post on 30 June. [UPDATE: I’m advised this was actually passed on to the journalist quite readily by NZ Post itself.] If his appointment to the Reserve Bank early was really vital to the success of the new regime, he should have stepped down from the NZ Post role immediately, and neither Orr, Quigley nor Robertson should ever have countenanced anything different. Quigley told media that Finlay had been developing “new governance systems” for the Board, but if he had any real suitability for such a role – where ethics count hugely – he should have known from the start how inappropriate it was, and would look, for him to be serving the Reserve Bank in such a role while chairing the company that majority-owned a bank regulated by the Reserve Bank. For all that Quigley says they were aware of the issue all along, everything about how they operated suggests they took the narrowest legal interpretation, in a way they would no doubt look on askance if a regulated entity tried it on. (It doesn’t strengthen their case that NZ Post is also majority owner of Kiwi Wealth, a significant funds management operation even though that body is not regulated by the Reserve Bank.) As it is, documents released under the Official Information Act confirm that Finlay has been regularly attending meetings of the existing Reserve Bank Board and thus been party to all the information that board has had before it.

It is a poor look and reflects poorly on everyone involved – Minister, Governor, chair, Finlay, and (less severely) the other members of the outgoing board. Among other things, it raises doubts about the approach that these players might take in future. And also leaves us with the question as to how the consultation with other political parties – now required for Board appointees – went down as regards the Finlay appointment. I guess one day the OIA may shed some further light. It is all rather suggestive of a cavalier Wellington approach to conflicts of interest (and both actual and apparent matter).

In my earlier post I included this section of the new legislation on the sort of people who can’t be Board members.

I have no problem with the provisions that are there. The problem is with what is not there. As I noted in the earlier post it is astonishing that a director or senior employee of a company that has a majority holding in a regulated entity (bank, insurer, deposit-taker etc) can be appointed to the Board, and can hold those two positions simultaneously. It is almost as concerning that someone who derived most of their income from work for one or more regulated entities (eg a partner of a law or accounting firm) can simultaneously be a director of the prudential regulatory agency.

But what I hadn’t noticed then (I guess my focus was elsewhere) was that there is no restriction at all on Reserve Bank board members holding ownership interests in regulated entities. According to this brand new law, I can’t be a director of a bank, insurer or finance company and simultaneously serve on the Reserve Bank Board (tick) but…..I could own a whole entity and do so. It is astonishing that Parliament has not protected us against the risk of such an appointment – so much so that one almost has to start asking why. Reserve Bank staff aren’t (or weren’t) allowed any such holdings, but it is the Board that makes the rules, sets priorities etc..

Before going further I should clarify two things: first, I’m sure no one wants to stop Board members (or staff) having totally passive interests through, say, a widely-offered Kiwisaver fund, or a passive NZ equities index fund. A caveat that no holding could be large enough it could credibly be regarded by a reasonable observer as likely to influence decisionmaking would seem sufficient to cover that. But that does not cover a 40 per cent stake in a finance company (say). And, second, the issue here is not a director might be engaging in deliberations specifically on a company s/he held a major stake in: I’m still willing to believe conflict of interest policies would require such a director to recuse him/herself from that specific discussion. But the Reserve Bank Board makes policy, applies policy, for broad classes of institutions, and no director with an ownership (or major income) interest in a regulated institution should be making policy for that class of institution, or contributing to internal discussion on the direction policy should go.

The new Act has a long list of provisions regarding conflicts of interest (from section 61). It starts reasonably enough

Any such conflict has to be disclosed to the chairperson – but not to the Board more generally, let alone the public.

And although the general provision is that a person cannot participate in a matter in which they have a conflict, there is explicit provision in the Act for the chair to waive that prohibition

Any such waiver has to be disclosed, but only in the Bank’s Annual Report, which may not be out for more than a year after such a waiver has been granted.

And one might have more confidence in the current chair, were he not complicit in the appointment of Rodger Finlay, while the latter was chair of the owner of a majority stake in a large bank.

More generally, there is a sense that these conflict of interest rules are written to cope with episodic events and conflicts that might arise, not really specifically foreseeably, in the course of a term on the Board. If the Board is looking to hire a consultant who is the husband or child of a Board member most probably that Board member would stand aside for that discussion/decision. But a Board member who owned half a finance company might reasonably claim that, having known of such an interest, the Minister had nonetheless lawfully appointed him/her, and that the conflict of interest rules would not apply to the Board’s general deliberations on policy for finance companies. Perhaps it would hold up, or perhaps not, but the government and Parliament should never have left such scope for uncertainty, the risk of highly inappropriate appointees (however capable), in the legislation. Section 31 (see above) should have been written a lot more restrictively.

My concerns were only heightened when I happened to have a look at the clause in the Act governing the removal/dismissal of a Governor. These are the things that disqualify you from being Governor.

But notice that being a director of an entity that owns a regulated entity isn’t a disqualification. And neither is having a direct ownership interest in a regulated entity.

Was this an oversight? It appears not. These are just causes for which the Governor can be dismissed

1(g) looks like it should be reassuring. But, there is more

Parliament has explicitly written the Act to allow the Minister of Finance to agree with the Governor that the Governor can hold an “ownership interest in a regulated entity” while serving as Governor (all compounded by the fact that no such provision would be public information).

I am not, repeat not, suggesting anything shady between the current incumbents, but why would Parliament put such a provision in the Act (without at least one of those “trivial or incidental holdings arising from passive holdings in broad-based investment funds” type of caveats)? It is just a dreadful look.

Will any of these provisions necessarily be abused? No, not necessarily. But things have not gotten off to a good start with the Finlay appointment, which makes it difficult to have much confidence in the rigorous integrity of the people involved in these appointments etc, now and in the future. Maintaining a honest and uncorrupt system depends in no small part on sweating the small stuff, but Parliament should just never have left these matters in any doubt, apparently entirely reliant on successive ministers, Governors, Board members being interested in bending over backwards, even when it is inconvenient, to avoid the substance or appearance of conflict in our prudential regulator.

Meantime minister, where are the Board members for this shiny new goverance model? And where, in particular, are the members with real and in-depth expertise in banking, financial system regulation and so on?

Central bank independence

Bernard Hickey – fluent and passionate left-wing journalist – had a piece out the other day headed thus

hickey rbnz

with a one sentence summary

TLDR: Put simply, the sort of true independence enjoyed by the Reserve Bank of New Zealand as it pioneered inflation targeting for the last 30 years is now over, and that’s a good thing.

I found it a strange piece on a number of counts, and I say that as someone who (a) does not think financial regulatory policy (as distinct from the implementation and enforcement of that policy) should be handed over to independent agency, and (b) is probably less compelled now than most macroeconomists by the case for operational independence for monetary policy. So I’m not responding to Hickey’s piece to mount a charger in defence of central bank independence. Mostly I want to push back against what seems to me quite a mis-characterisation of the effect of the Robertson Reserve Bank reforms – those already legislated, those before the House now, and those the government has announced as forthcoming. But also about the responsibility of central banks for the tale of woe Hickey sets out to describe.

It is worth remembering that, by international standards, the Reserve Bank’s monetary policy independence – de facto and de jure – was always quite limited by international standards. Under the 1989 Act the Minister and the Governor jointly agreed the target, but every Governor largely deferred to the Minister in setting – and repeatedly changing – the objective, even if details were haggled over. And with a fairly specific target, and explicit power for the Governor to be dismissed for inadequate performance relative to the target, it was a fairly constrained (operational) independence. The accountability proved to be weaker that those involved at the start had hoped, but it could have been used more.

The monetary policy parts of the Act were overhauled in 2018. There were some good dimensions to that, including making the Minister (alone) formally responsible for setting the monetary policy targets. The Minister got to directly appoint the chair of the Bank’s (monitoring) Board. And a committee was established by statute to be responsible for monetary policy operational decisions. But setting up the MPC didn’t change the Reserve Bank’s operational independence, and if it had been set up well could even have strengthened it de facto over time. The Minister did not take to himself the power – most of his peers abroad have – to directly appoint the Governor or any of the other MPC members. As it is, the reforms barely even reduced the power of the Governor – previously the exclusive holder of the monetary policy powers – who has huge influence on who gets appointed to the MPC (three others are his staff) and who got the Minister to agree that no one with any ongoing expertise in monetary policy and related matters should be appointed as a non-executive MPC members. Oh, and got the Minister to agree that the independent MPC members should be seen and heard just as little as absolutely possible (unlike, say, peers in the UK or the USA).

Hickey cites as an example of the reduced independence the Bank’s request for an indemnity from the Minister of Finance to cover any losses on the large scale asset purchase programme the Bank launched last March. I’d put it the other way round. The Bank did not need the government’s permission to launch the LSAP programme – indeed it is one of the concerns about the Reserve Bank Act that it empowers the Bank to do things (including fx intervention and bond buying) that could cost taxpayers very heavily with no checks or effective constraint. It seemed sensible and prudent of the Bank to have sought the indemnity, partly to recognise that any losses would ultimately fall to the Crown anyway. Operational independence never (should meant) operational license, especially when (unusually) the Bank is undertaking activities posing direct financial risk to the Crown. (And I say this as someone who thinks that the LSAP programme itself was largely pointless and macroeconomically ineffectual.)

What about the other reforms? I’ve written previously about the bill before the House at present, which is mostly about the governance of the Bank. It will make no difference at all to the Bank’s monetary policy operational independence (although increases the risk that poor quality people are appointed in future to monetary policy roles). That bill transfers most of the Governor’s remaining personal powers to the Board. The Minister will appoint the Board members directly (unlike the appointment of the Governor) but even then the Minister will first be required to consult the other political parties, so it is hardly any material loss of independence for the Bank. The Minister will, in future, be required to issue a Remit for the Bank’s uses of its regulatory powers – and we really don’t know what will be in such documents – but those provisions don’t even purport to diminish the Bank’s policy-setting autonomy (notably since it is much harder, probably not sensibly possible, to pre-specify a financial stability target akin to the inflation target).

Details of the next wave of reforms were announced last week. Of particular note is the provisions around the standards that the Bank will be able to issue setting out prudential restrictions on deposit-takers, including banks. I wrote about that announcement last week. Since then more papers, including the (long) Cabinet papers and an official sets of questions and answers has been released. We do have the draft legislation yet, so things might change, but as things stand it is clear that what the government is proposing will amount to no de facto reduction in the Bank’s policymaking autonomy, and only the very slightest de jure reduction.

Why do I say this? At present, the Bank regulates banks primarily by issuing Conditions of Registration (controls on non-bank deposit-takers, mostly small, are set by regulation, which the Minister has control over). Under the new legislation is proposed that Conditions of Registration will be replaced by Standards, which will be issued (solely) by the Bank, but will be subject to the disallowance provisions that are standard for regulations via theRegulations Review Committee. In between the Act (which will specify – loosely, inevitably – objectives and principles to guide the use of the statutory powers) and the Standards, the Minister will be given the power to make regulations specifying the types of activity the Bank can set standards for. Note, however, that empowering the Bank to set standards in particular areas does not compel the Bank to do so (in practice, it is likely to be a simultaneous process)

There was initially some uncertainty about how specific the Minister could get – the more specific, the more effective power the Minister would have. But the Cabinet paper removed most of the doubt.

standards 1

Backed up in the relevant text of the official questions and answers released on The Treasury’s website.

standards 2

That isn’t very much power for the Minister at all; in effect nothing at all in respect of housing lending (since once the new Act is in force the Minister will simply have to regulate to allow a Standard on residential mortgage lending, if only to give continuing underpinning to LVR restrictions). Perhaps what it would do is allow a liberalising Minister to prevent the Bank setting specific standards for specific types of lending but……that doesn’t seem like the Labour/Robertson approach. And once a Minister has allowed the Bank to set standards for residential lending, the Minister will have no further say at all: the Bank could ban lending entirely to particular classes of borrowers, ban entirely specific types of loans, impose LVRs, impose DTI limits, perhaps impose limits of lending on waterfront properties (we know the Governor’s climate change passion). For most practical purposes it is likely to strengthen the independence of the Bank to make policy in matters that directly affect firms and households, with few/no checks and balances, and little basis for any formal accountability. Based on this government’s programme, the age of central bank policy-setting independence is being put on more secure foundations (since the old Act never really envisaged discretionary use of regulatory policy, which crept in through the back door).

Hickey argues that the introduction of LVR controls in 2013 by then-Governor Graeme Wheeler required government consent. In law, it never did. If the law allowed LVR controls – a somewhat contested point – all the power rested with the Governor personally. It may have been politically prudent for the Governor to have agreed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Minister on such tools, but he did not (strictly) have to. At best, it was a second-best reassertion of some government influence of these intrusive regulatory tools.

Now perhaps some will argue that there might be something similar in future too: the Minister might have no formal powers, but any prudent central bank might still seek some non-binding agreement with the government. But I don’t believe that. If the government had wanted any say on whether, say, DTI limits were things it was comfortable with, or what sorts of borrowers they might apply to, the prudent and sensible approach would be to provide explicitly for that in legislation. The old legislation may have grown like topsy, but this will be brand new legislation. The Minister is actively choosing to opt out and given the Bank more policy-setting independence (including formally so for non-banks) on the sorts of matter simply unsuited to be delegated to an independent agency, that faces little effective accountability (see the table from Paul Tucker’s book in last week’s post).

Whether independence should be strengthened or not, the Ardern/Robertson government has announced plans that will do exactly that, while at the same time weakening the effective accountability of the Bank (since powers will be diffused through a large board, with no transparency about the contribution of individual members).

That was a slightly longwinded response to the suggestion that actual central bank independence (monetary policy or financial regulation) is being reduced, in practice or by this goverment’s reforms. I favour a reduction in the policymaking powers of the Bank around financial regulation (the Bank should be expert advisers, and implementers/enforcers without fear or favour, not policymakers – the job we elect people to do).

What about monetary policy. Hickey reckons not only (and incorrectly so far) that monetary policy operational independence has been reduced, but that it should be reduced.

As it happens, I’m now fairly openminded on the case for monetary policy operational independence. One can mount a reasonable argument – as Paul Tucker does – for delegation to an independent agency (since a target can be specified, there is reasonable agreement on that target, there is expertise to hold the agency to account etc). But it has to be acknowledged that much of the case that was popular 30 years ago – that politicians could not be trusted to keep inflation down and would simply mess things up on an ongoing basis – is a lot weaker after a decade in which inflation has consistently (in numerous countries) undershot the targets the politicians (untrustworthy by assumption) set for the noble, expert and public-spirited central bankers.

What I’m not persuaded by is any of Hickey’s case for taking away the operational autonomy. Five or six years ago, I recall him – like me – lamenting that New Zealand monetary policymakers were doing too little to get the unemployment back down towards a NAIRU-type rate (it lingered high for years after the recession) and core inflation back up to target. But now, when core inflation is still only just getting back to target, unemployment is above any estimate of the NAIRU (notably including the Bank’s) Hickey seems to have joined the “central banks are wreaking havoc, doing too much etc etc” club.

One can debate the impact of the Bank’s LSAP programme. Personally, I doubt it has any made material useful macroeconomic contribution over the last year (good or ill – I don’t think it has done anything much to asset prices generally, and not that much even to long bond prices), and as I’ve argued previously it has mostly been about appearing active, allowing the Governor to wave his hands and say “look at all we are doing”. But even if you believe the LSAP programme has been deeply detrimental in some respect or other – Hickey seems to be among those thinking it plays a material part in the latest house price surge (mechanism unclear) – why would anyone suppose that a Minister of Finance running monetary policy last year would have done anything materially different to what the Bank actually did. After all, as Hickey tells us the Minister did sign off on the LSAP programme anyway, and a decisionmaking Minister of Finance would have been advised primarily by…..the Reserve Bank and the Treasury (and recall that the Secretary to the Treasury sits as a non-voting member of the MPC, and there has been no hint that Treasury has had a materially different view).

I think the answer is that Hickey favours a much heavier reliance on fiscal policy – even though he laments, and presents graphs about, how much additional private saving has occurred in many advanced economies in the last year, the income that is being saved mostly have resulted from….fiscal policy. Again, I think the answer is that he wants the government to be much more active in purchasing real goods and services – not just redistributing incomes. I suppose it comes close to an MMT view of the world.

But again there is little sign of anyone much – not just in New Zealand but anywhere – adopting this approach, or even central bank independence being restricted in other countries (what there is plenty sign of is central bankers getting out of their lane and into all sorts of trendy personal agendas – be it climate change (non) financial stability risks, indigenous networks or whatever.

None of this agenda seems to add up when it comes to events like those of the last 15 months. We know that monetary policy instruments can be activated, adjusted, reversed almost immediately. We know that governments are quite technically good at flinging around income support very quickly. But governments – this one foremost among them – are terrible at, for example, wisely using money to quickly get real spending (eg infrastructure) going in short order, and such projects once launched are hard to stop or to adequately control. Monetary policy is simply much much better suited to the cyclical stabilisation role.

Hickey is a big-government guy, and there are reasonable political arguments to have about the appropriate size and scope of government, but they haven’t got anything much to do with stabilisation policy – and nor should they. One doesn’t want projects stopped or started simply for cyclical purposes – brings back memories of reading of how the Reserve Bank wasn’t able to build its building for a long time because the governments of the day judged the economy overheated.

The (unstated) final part of his story seems to relate to a view that perhaps monetary policy has reached its limits. It would be a curious argument, given that much of his case seems to rest of the damage monetary policy is doing (impotent instruments tend to be irrelevant, even if deployed). He repeat this, really nice, long-term Bank of England chart

hickey 2

The centuries-long trend has been downwards, and many advanced country rates are either side of zero. But interesting as the chart genuinely is, including for questions about the real neutral interest rate (something monetary policy has little or no impact on), it tells one nothing about (a) who should be the monetary policy decisionmaker, or (b) the relative roles of fiscal and monetary policy. After all, the only reason why nominal interest rates can’t usefully go much below zero yet is because of regulatory restrictions and rules established – in much different times – by governments and central banks. Scrap the unlimited convertibility at par of deposits for bank notes – not hard to do technically – and conventional monetary policy (the OCR) immediately regains lots more degrees of freedom, able to be used – easily and less controversially – for the stabilisation role for which is it the best tool.

To end, I wouldn’t be unduly disconcerted if the government were to legislate to return to a system in which the Bank advised and the Minister decided on monetary policy matters. It might just be an additional burden for a busy minister, but it would be unlikely to do significant sustained harm (and one of the lessons of the last 30+ years is that central bankers and ministers inhabit the same environment, have many of the same ideological preferences etc) in a place like New Zealand. But to junk monetary policy as the primary cyclical stabilisation tool really would be to toss out the baby as well as the bathwater, no matter how big or active you think government tax and spending should be.

Regulating lending

The Minister of Finance yesterday announced the latest elements in the government’s overhaul of the Reserve Bank Act. As with so much of that multi-year multi-stage review it has good bits and bad bits.

I support the introduction of deposit insurance (with risk-based pricing), for second-best reasons canvassed here numerous times over the years (deposit insurance increases slightly the likelihood a big bank will be allowed to fail). I also support putting all deposit-takers under a common regulatory regime, replacing the weird halfway house we’ve had for the last decade or so where banks are under one regime and non-banks under another (with the Bank having key powers over the banks, but the Minister of Finance being responsible for key policy matters re the non-banks). So I’m not writing any more about those (well-flagged) aspects of yesterday’s announcement.

However, this –  from the Minister’s press statement –  was something of a bolt from the blue.

The reforms will also include a new process for setting lending restrictions, such as loan-to-value ratios.

“This will give the Minister of Finance a role in determining which types of lending the Reserve Bank is able to directly restrict. The Reserve Bank will then have full discretion to decide which instrument is best suited to use and how the restrictions are applied,” Grant Robertson said.

“As with other prudential requirements, lending standards policies will be subject to more general requirements such as consultation with other government agencies and the public, and the Reserve Bank needing to have regard to the Minister of Finance’s Financial Policy Remit.”

This was somewhat elaborated on in a Q&A document provided to journalists (which doesn’t seem to be on the Beehive or Treasury websites, but which one journalist sent me for my comments). The key bits are as follows (and apologies if it is a bit hard to read).

DTA standards

The first two rows there seem just fine, and indeed in some respects a significant step forward (notably treating future Reserve Bank prudential standards as secondary legislation, subject to proper parliamentary oversight and potential disallowance). They will also remove the current ambiguity around whether, for example, LVR restrictions are even a lawful use of existing legislation.

The problems – indeed, the oddity – is in the final two rows. Specifically

Cabinet has agreed that the DTA will include a requirement that the Minister of Finance can make regulations (following consultation with the Reserve Bank) defining the type of lending that lending standards may relate to. This reflects the legitimate interest of elected representatives in setting the permitted scope of this power given the potentially significant distributional effects it may have, and the potential tensions between the Reserve Bank setting lending restrictions to achieve its financial stability objective and wider governmental objectives.

I described this yesterday as a slightly curious step forward. It is a step forward because under the current Reserve Bank Act, applying to regulation of banks, all the policymaking powers rest exclusively with the Bank (the Governor personally at present), even though there are no clear and specific objectives, and thus little or no effective accountability. It is a really severe democratic deficit, only compounded in practice by the inadequacies of the Reserve Bank itself (see earlier posts on the weaknesses of their analysis, and the Governor’s bullying approach, around major regulatory policy initiatives).

There was an attempt some years ago to paper over this problem with the macroprudential memorandum of understanding between the Bank and the then Minister, which purported to give the Bank authority to, for example, use LVR restrictions. “Purported” because the Minister had no legal role, or authority – and could not formally stop the Bank doing what it wanted – but it may have provided some sort of political check (and without the MOU it is likely the Bank would have pressed ahead with debt to income limits).

Yesterday’s announcement appears to recognise that there was a problem, a weakness in the framework, leaving too much power in the hands of a central bank that has no mandate and no accountability. But the way the government has chosen to respond is really quite bizarre, the more so (it seems to me) the more I have reflected on it. As, frankly, are some of the other economists comments I’ve seen suggesting that this will take away the Bank’s “operational independence”.

Now, in fairness, some concerns may be allayed when the detailed legislation emerges. There are concerns that a government will be able to regulate that, say, credit to businesses they don’t like will be able to be regulated, but not that to businesses they do like, or (to take an absurd extreme) credit to National voters (or voting areas) could be restricted but not that to Labour voters. One would hope the legislation makes clear that any such regulation-making power – over which areas the Bank can impose lending standards – is subject to a clear and demanding statutory test, to ensure that such designations can be used only where there is a systemic-level threat to the financial system.

But then that is where the oddity comes in. You would expect the Reserve Bank to be (much) better positioned than ministers to determine where threats to financial stability might come from. While politicians are, in our system of government, the prime legislators and policymakers. They, after all, are the only ones we can toss out in elections, and the only ones facing day to day scrutiny and challenge in Parliament.

And yet, we are told, under this legislation the Minister of Finance will identify the risk areas (albeit “in consultation with” – but not subject to- the Bank), and then the Bank will be free to do whatever it likes in those areas. Of course, when I frame it as “the Minister of Finance will identify the risk areas”, it is also about “the Minister of Finance will identify the political no-go areas”. But that too is bizarre: the government might object to direct restrictions on lending to first-home buyers, but is unlikely to have the same objection to high capital requirements in respect of such lending – but the government can only determine the type of lending the Bank sets “standards” for, not the tools used. If there is a place for politicians in all this – and I think there is an important place – it should be about use of specific regulatory interventions (potentially very heavy-handed ones), not the identification of areas of risk.

Thus, I’ve seen no coverage of the fact that – on what we are told yesterday – in future the government will claim no right to determine whether or not debt to income limits can be imposed. That would represent a really big step back from the model the government and Reserve Bank tells us they have been using for the last decade or so. (And recall, again based on what we are told, if the government is okay with regulating housing lending – even first home owner lending – they won’t be able to (say) distinguish between LVR and DTI restrictions. That would be entirely a matter for the Bank, with no clear objectives and no effective accountability.

This is simply wrongheaded, giving official and up to date sanction to a near-unlimited potential set of regulatory interventions by an independent (and not very expert) agency. Those powers – if they are to exist at all – should rest with the Minister of Finance and Cabinet, taking advice from the Reserve Bank and Treasury.

It is also where some of the comments about “operational independence” get quite confused. As regards central banks the concept of operational independence grew up around monetary policy to distinguish the ability to adjust, say, an OCR in pursuit of a target, and the ability to set the target itself (which would be “goal autonomy”). The ECB has both goal and operational autonomy on monetary policy, but the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (like most central banks with modern legislation) has operational autonomy to pursue a target set for them by politicians. There is quite widespread support for that sort of model (even if the case is weaker than it once seemed). Not only is there a fairly clear objective and some reasonable way to assess whether or not the job is being done well, but central banks typically have quite limited (often no) direct regulatory powers as regards monetary policy: they can set their own interest rate, and can buy and sell assets (ie indirect influence), but that is about all.

By contrast, in bank (and now non-bank) regulation there is (a) no clear and specific objective, (b) no clear way of knowing whether the job is being done effectively (systemic bank failures are very rare, so there are few observations), but (c) there are few effective constraints on the direct regulatory interventions the Bank could use. It appears, for example, that they could simply ban some types of credit (provided by deposit-takers) if they so chose, or hugely impinge on household or business choices, in ways that – if done at all – should only be done by people we can hold to account. And that isn’t the Governor or the (new) Board. (As it happens, this is more or less the model – Bank advises, Ministers decides – that applies to non-bank deposit-takers, which is the reason why LVR controls don’t apply to them.)

We do want operational autonomy for the prudential regulatory agency. But that operational autonomy is about the implementation of policy powers that – at least in the broad – are set by elected policymakers. We do not want politicians interfering in how rules are applied to favour, say, one bank over another – any more than we want politicians interfering in which individuals get NZS, but the NZS policy parameters should be set by those we elect. There are grey areas (what is implementation, what is policy) but what the current government is proposing is a significant in increase in the policymaking powers of a bureaucratic agency – formally so in the case of non-banks, informally so (the prior constraint of the MOU) in respect of banks. That simply fails standard tests of good government, democratic accountability and so on – and would do even if the Reserve Bank were demonstrably an excellent agency.

I’ve written here previously about the very useful book (Unelected Power: The Quest for Legitimacy in Central Banking and the Regulatory State) published a few years ago written by Sir Paul Tucker, former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England. This summary table is taken from the book.

tucker2

Giving far-reaching policymaking powers to the Reserve Bank, particularly in areas that directly impinge on firms and households, simply does not pass the test. Cabinet seems to have rightly recognised that politicians have key responsibilities and accountabilities, and yet taken a strange – and weak – approach in response.

To be clear, I do not favour any of the sorts of interventions the Bank has adopted or tried to get introduced in recent years. The prudential regulatory (system soundness and efficiency) case for LVRs or DTIs has never been compellingly made, and if I had my way the law would prohibit either the government or the Reserve Bank from imposing such restrictions (without specific new primary legislation). But if such powers are to exist, they should be exercised only by those we elect, those we can properly scrutinise, those we can toss out.

(On which note, the government is currently advertising for members of the new Reserve Bank board, to take office in July 2022, when the Board will assume all the financial regulation powers statutes give to the Bank. The formal job description is not quite this bad, but note that in the big newspaper adverts for these roles “championing diversity and inclusion” and “sound understanding of Te Ao Maori” (even “operating with intergenerational horizons”) come before any specialist expertise in the subject matter the Bank is responsible for.)

Reforming the Reserve Bank, continued

Submissions to Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee on the Reserve Bank of New Zealand bill close today. This is the next stage in the ongoing overhaul of the Reserve Bank legislation, and this particular bill focuses on a new governance structure for the Bank, largely importing for monetary policy the provisions of the amending legislation passed a couple of years ago. In the process, the substantive regulatory powers that were part of the Act are being spun out, unchanged for now, into a separate piece of legislation.

There is a fair amount of sensible stuff in the bill. The single decisionmaker model, flawed and unusual for monetary policy, deeply unsuited to the regulatory functions, will finally be no more. The MPC now makes monetary policy – well at least on paper at does, perhaps it more true that MPC is the venue at which monetary policy is made – and in future the Bank’s new Board will be responsible for all the other functions of the Bank (notably all those highly contentious bank regulatory policy functions, and the application of supervisory policy to banks, non-bank deposit takers, and insurance companies). There are some small steps in the right direction on funding agreements, and a formalised responsibility for Treasury in monitoring the Bank in support of the Minister’s role in holding the Bank to account.

There are some problematic things as well. There is a worrying provision that allows someone with a conflict of interest to nonetheless act and or a vote on a matter if someone as lowly as the deputy chair of the Board thinks it is okay. There is the worrying disappearance of the “efficiency” constraints on the Bank’s interventionist enthusiasms from the statutory goals for prudential policy. And there is what I think is the wrongheaded choice to keep all the functions – really quite different functions, probably needing quite different sorts of people at the helm – in a single institution.

I made only a quite short submission focused on just two areas of the bill that I see as problematic:

  • the quite different (utterly different) governance models being established for two different, each complex, policy functions housed in the same institution, and
  • the key role the Bank’s Board – primarily responsible for corporate matters and financial regulation/supervision – will have in the appointment of key monetary policy decisionmakers, the Governor and (in particular) the external members of the Monetary Policy Committee, even though there is no reason to think the Board will have any macro expertise, or will treat it as a priority, and although they will have no effective public accountability for appointments these unelected people will control.

On the first point

The Bank has two prime functions. 

The first is the conduct of monetary policy, which is primarily the responsibility of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC).  The MPC operates under a Remit set by the Minister, outlining more specifically the goals for monetary policy.  The Governor chairs the MPC, and although the remaining members (three internal, three external) are appointed by the Minister on the recommendation of the Board, the Governor himself has a great deal of say in those appointments, especially those of the internal members, whom the Governor appoints, remunerates, and allocates resources to (in respect of their line management functions).  That influence will be further strengthened under this bill because (rightly) the Deputy Governor will no longer be a statutory role.

The second main function is financial supervision and regulation, oversight of the financial system as a whole and prudential regulation of banks, deposit-takers, and insurance companies.  The Bank has extensive discretionary policymaking powers, especially as regards banks (the largest, by far, financial institutions in New Zealand).   This discretion exists not just as regards the application of clear policy to a specific institution’s circumstances, but as regards policy itself (notable recent examples in New Zealand have been around loan to value limits, and bank capital requirements).

This bill provides for a new Financial Policy Remit.  There is probably some merit in this innovation, although only time will tell (since we have not seen what such a Remit will look like or operate).  However, members should not be deceived by the use of the term of “Remit” for both monetary policy and financial regulatory functions.  The monetary policy remit is more or less binding on the MPC, clearly setting out a fairly widely-agreed target that is not too dissimilar to targets in a range of other advanced countries.  By contrast, section 201 makes clear that the financial policy remit is to be no more than the identification of things the Minister considers it desirable for the Bank to have regard to.       In other words, a huge amount of discretionary policymaking power is to be left with the Bank, in areas where there is no generally agreed right or wrong approach and thus little effective basis for holding the Bank to account for its exercise of those powers.    In the literature, notably for example former Bank of England Deputy Governor Sir Paul Tucker’s book Unelected Power, this lack of clarity (an unavoidable lack given our current state of knowledge) would be an argument for putting less policy-setting power in the hands of unelected officials, leaving contested policy choices to the Minister of Finance, working with expert advice from (in this case) The Treasury and the Reserve Bank.

What is striking, however, is the quite different governance model chosen for the Bank’s financial regulatory functions.  The powers of the Bank in this (and most other) areas will, in future, be vested in the Bank’s Board, and neither the Governor nor any other staff will be members of the Board.   There may be some merits in a governance model of that sort for some sorts of agencies.  In many Crown entities the chief executive is simply an employee of the Board.  That is, as I understand it, the situation at the Financial Markets Authority (albeit an agency that does not have extensive policymaking, as distinct from implementation, powers).  But it seems strangely anomalous to have two quite different governance models for two different, both prominent and complex, policy functions operating in the same institution.    And if there was a case for giving the chief executive (and fulltime experts) a stronger role in one or other of these functions, one might suppose it would be in the financial regulatory and policy side, where there is much greater ambiguity and uncertainty [including about goals, constraints, and transmission mechanisms]. 

It also seems anomalous that the monetary policy provisions have been written to make clear that the Governor is the key figure, including the prime public representative.  By contrast, for financial regulatory matters there will be a separate chair of a Board the Governor is not even a member of, and the Governor is at most an adviser to, and spokesman for, the Board.    While it is not unknown to have monetary policy and financial regulation done by different committees in the same institution (eg the UK) I’m not aware of any country that has chosen to create such gaping differences in the roles/powers of the Governor across those functions.   In one – the smaller (although more prominent) side of the Bank in future – he will be “kingpin”; in the other the Governor will have a diminished role that will only become clear with time.

Perhaps it might be a more pardonable outcome if the model has grown like topsy over a long period of times, but the two stages to the institutional reform of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand have been done as part of one process and by a single Minister of Finance.  It is not too late to step back and introduce greater alignment across the governance models used for the Bank’s two main functions.  Or to reserve more of the financial regulatory policymaking power to the Minister of Finance.

And on the second

Since 1989 the Governor has been appointed by the Minister of Finance, who may only appoint someone recommended by the Bank’s Board.  That in itself is a highly unusual model internationally. It is much more normal for the Minister of Finance (or the executive collectively) to be able appoint his/her own preferred candidate as Governor (that is, for example, the model in Australia, the UK, and – subject to Senate confirmation –  in the US).  Much the same model – Minister can appoint only people recommended by the Board –  was adopted for the other members of the Monetary Policy Committee in the 2018 amendments.

Whatever the possible merits of that model under the 1989 Act, the situation will be quite different under the provisions of this bill as drafted.  Under the 1989 model, the Board itself had few decision-making powers, none on any policy or operational matters, and its role was explicitly primarily about holding the Governor to account, and one of its key functions was the recommendation of the appointment of the Governor.  Whatever considerations influenced successive ministers in making Board appointments over the years, it was clear the Board had much the same (monitoring and accountability) responsibilities across all the functions the Bank/Governor were responsible for.   That remained more or less so under the 2018 amendments, in respect of the other MPC members.

But under this bill, the primary functions of the Board will in future be the conduct of the affairs of the Bank, other than those of the Monetary Policy Committee.  By far the largest of those functions will be financial system oversight and financial institution regulation and supervision (together with associated financial functions such as physical currency, payments systems, and the wholesale securities settlement system).    It seems likely that the bulk of the people appointed to the Board will be people with skills and background in and around financial institutions, and perhaps some people with a regulatory/corporate background.   That may be quite appropriate for the financial regulatory/oversight functions.  But macroeconomics and monetary policy is a quite different sort of role and requires a quite different set of skills, and it isn’t obvious that we (or future Ministers) can count on future Boards to have any real expertise in these matters, or any great interest (given that they will be busy doing the stuff the Board has prime responsibility for).    And when it comes to the appointment of the Governor in particular, isn’t there a serious risk that the Board will be more likely to emphasise skill sets relevant to their functions, those they see the Governor in each week/month, and not the skills necessary for the effective conduct of monetary policy?   And even if the Board members are well-motivated around monetary policy, what expertise or ability to judge are they likely to bring to the appointment/recommendation decisions.

I would strongly urge that these provisions be reviewed and amended.  In the Bill, Board members are to be appointed by the Minister but he/she will be required to consult with other political parties before making those appointments.  Why not, then, adopt, the same model for the appointment of the Governor and the appointment of other MPC members?  Doing that would not only make clear that monetary policy is not some secondary function, but would ensure that the Minister (a) has discretion to appoint people he/she is comfortable with (important since only the Minister has electoral accountability), (b) can draw on advice from The Treasury, the government’s key adviser on economic policy matters, and (c) adds a layer of reassurance (consultation with other parties) that still keeps tolerably low the risk of raw cronies being appointed to these important roles.   An alternative model to political party consultation – one I would prefer, and one used in the UK – is to provide for FEC itself to hold hearings on people being appointed to these before people can take up their appointments.  FEC would not have a formal power of veto, but the requirement for public scrutiny and the scope for hard questions also acts as an effective check in helping ensure that good quality candidates are consistently appointed.

There is really no excuse for such a dogs-breakfast. Yes, the MPC model is up and running, but has been in place for less than two years, and it would not require very large changes to bring the models applying to the two functions into greater alignment, and ensure appropriate control of appointments by the only people we – voters – can toss out; that is, the Minister of Finance.

Having the Governor’s back

When the Reserve Bank Act was passed back in 1989, decision-making power was taken away from the Bank’s Board and given to the Governor (even as, overall, the Bank gained a greater degree of autonomy). The Board was retained but in a quite different sort of role. Their new role was primarily to hold the Governor to account, on behalf of the Minister and the general public. Later reforms were made to try to strengthen (the appearance of?) that role: somewhat belatedly the Governor was to no longer chair the Board (although he remained a member of a board whose primary role was to hold him to account), and the Board was required by statute to publish an Annual Report. More recently still – in a well-overdue move – the current government amended the Act to provide that the Minister of Finance would in future appoint the Board chair, making it clearer who the Board was responsible to.

Over the years, the powers of the Bank and the range of activities it undertakes has also grown, and the policy discretion exercised by the Bank has grown well beyond what was orginally envisaged. And latterly most of the formal monetary policy powers have been handed over to a statutory Monetary Policy Committee, and the Board is now also responsible for holding them to account.

But through all these changes, one thing has been constant: the Board has never really acted to hold the Governor to account at all, and instead the Board – through numerous waves of different members and different chairs – seems to have acted as if its primary role was to have the Governor’s back, and reinforce the gubernatorial spin. (In previous posts I’ve argued that in some respects this was always likely, since (a) the Board had no independent resources (eg for external advice), (b) the Governor remained a member, (c) the secretary to the Board was for a long time a member of the Bank’s own senior management, and (d) there were no real incentives to rock the boat.)

There seems to have been a belated general acceptance that the Board is useless, and not readily able to be fixed, in its current role. In fact, the government has introduced legislation which will, if passed, scrap the current model and give the Board primary decisionmaking responsibility for most of the Bank’s non-monetary policy functions (it is a hodge-podge model, itself not likely to work that well, but that is a post for another day).

The Bank’s latest Annual Report was released last week. It didn’t get attention. The Board’s Annual Report got even less (pretty sure it was none). That is hardly surprising. The Board buries its report in the middle of management’s report, and the press release the Governor puts out never mentions that there is an independent report by an entity paid and mandated by Parliament to hold he and his colleagues to account.

As it is, had anyone read the Board’s Annual Report (start on page 6 here), they could only have come to the conclusion that the Board was determined to prove its utter uselessness and ineffectualness in any role other than covering for the Governor. It is spin and/or unquestioning acquiescence, from start to finish.

There is, for example, the nonsense inflation of the Bank’s importance:

We are pleased with the decisive actions that have been taken by the Bank to deal with the potential collapse in economic activity.

75 basis points off the OCR, and whatever lowering of near-term government bond rates the LSAP achieved, simply did not – on any serious reckoning – avert a “potential collapse in economic activity”, and could not conceivably have done so, when the shock to economic activity was primarily about things (fear of virus, policy response to virus) that monetary policy has no affect on.

Remarkably they also claim to be “pleased by the communication and transparency the Bank showed in delivering these innovative tools”.

All while making no mention of, for example, the Governor’s substantive interview last year (in the year under review) expressing a strong preference for a negative OCR as a first cab off the rank, or the public comments of one of his own senior managers in March this year playing down what anyone might reasonable expect from a bond purchase programme. Or the failure to release any research/analysis around the LSAP. Or the failure to release the detailed background papers – promised by the Governor in a speech in March – on the various unconventional instrument options. Or the weird pledge the MPC made in March not to alter the OCR for a year come what May.

And, of course, they make no mention of expressing any concern that despite (a) years of lead time, and (b) the Governor’s explicit preferences expressed last August, it only emerged quite belatedly that it was not until the end of January that the Bank took any steps to discover whether the banking system was operationally ready for a negative OCR (perhaps that is because, as they note, “well before Covid-19, we were briefed on the Bank’s preparations”, and presumably none of them asked the question either).

There is no suggestion of any unease around the policy/communications inconsistency from the MPC in the middle of last year (they could perhaps have explained it away as teething issues with the new MPC, but they seem resolutely determined to utter no cautions on anything at all sensitive).

The Board was quite as determined, it appears, to have the Governor’s back when it comes to financial stability as well. They are firmly behind the big increase in capital requirements and seem quite unbothered about concerns and questions raised, and (if anything) even less bothered about the abusive style adopted by the Governor on many occasions during the course of the consultation. Reflecting the Bank’s own lines, the Board both championed the much higher capital requirements – which had not come into effect and made little or no difference to capital levels by the end of last year – and repeat the Bank’s spin about how sound the system is/was in the face of the (large) Covid shock at the old capital levels. Taxpayers’ money is wasted on this.

Lest you thought that they never uttered a challenging word – to encourage or discourage – there is in fact one quiet dissent in the report, although presumably only allowed to get this far because the Governor himself was on board. We learn that

Policy work on the Deposit Takers Act is highly complex and significant for the Bank’s operations; the Board has expressed concern that the policy development process should be thorough and not rushed.

And that is it – and even then a comment on something not largely under the Bank’s control (Treasury and the Minister having a large say).

For the rest of the report, it is just gush. Perhaps the Board is less than enraptured with the Governor’s climate change ambitions – they just get passing mention – but they are all-in with the Maori strategy; this in an institution that operates at a wholesale, not primarily individual-member of the public facing, level:

The Board believes the incorporation of Te Ao Maori into the Bank’s work will help develop a central bank with a distinctive New Zealand approach and character.

Tree god myths and other pandering, but with not a shred of evidence for how any of this expenditure of public resources (from memory of my OIA it was $1m) will enhance macroeconomic or financial stability. But I guess when the Board chair is accused in his day job of fostering “systematic racism” (universities and all that being, in current form, a western development) he probably had to be seen to go along.

The gush continues to the end. We learn that the Governor and Deputy Governor have provided “outstanding leadership” – so much so an accountability body finds no fault at all – and the report ends having lost all touch with reality observing that the Bank is “realising the Bank’s vision to be a – Great Team, Best Central Bank.”

You might conceivably think the Bank does, on the whole, not a bad job. But there is no conceivable basis – in outputs or outcomes (or actually in inputs for that matter) – to think that the Reserve Bank is even close to being the “best central bank”. As I’ve noted previously, in a not-so-wealthy small economy it might not ever be realistic as an aim. But it could do a great deal better than it is on numerous fronts – and presumably if the decisionmakers did not agree they would not recently have decided to throw lots more taxpayers’ money at the Bank to help them do better.

Most likely, there will only be one more of these puff pieces, and by 2022 the new legislation is likely to pass and any pretence that the Board is an accountability body will pass out of law. When it finally does, of course, it will only reinforce how weak the accountability mechanisms are around this very powerful independent agency. I’m still of the view that New Zealand would benefit, slightly and at the margin, from establishing a small Macroeconomic and Finance Policy Monitoring agency, operating at arms-length from both The Treasury and the Reserve Bank.

The final thing of interest in the Bank’s own Annual Report is the higher salaries table. This is an excerpt from this year’s.

RB salaries

As I noted last year, Orr himself seemed to be getting more than the Minister had suggested when the appointment was made. And there seem to be a lot of senior colleagues – in a still not very large organisation – pulling in very high salaries. I’m not one of those who generally thinks top-tier public service salaries are too high in principle. These are probably something like fair salaries for excellence, but there is little sign of consistent excellence at the top of the Bank, particularly not from the Governor.

(Incidentally, government department chief executives earlier this year took a temporary 20 per cent pay cut in the wake of Covid. I’ve seen no hint that the Governor – exercising significant public policy powers, and better paid than most of them, and apparently thwarting a collapse in the economy – followed their lead. Perhaps some journalist might ask why.) UPDATE: Thanks to the reader who drew my attention to the footnote describing the Governor’s temporary pay cut.

The Board itself pulls in a couple of hundred thousand (in total) in fees – the largest chunk going to the chair who, one woud have thought, had a demanding day job. The Governor might be getting his money’s worth, but the public is not.