What is “formulating monetary policy”?

Under clause 8 of the current Reserve Bank of New Zealand Act, the primary function of the Bank is “to formulate and implement monetary policy”.   All powers rest with the Governor personally.

I did a lot of work over the years on issues around monetary policy, both bigger picture stuff around goals and governance, and on the detailed implementation arrangements (the design of the OCR system itself, and various supporting liquidity management arrangements).  I sat on whatever internal advisory committees we had for the best part of 25 years.  I wrote this piece, for example, and this one.  So I know whereof I speak.  But I don’t recall anyone ever making much of the distinction between formulation and implementation, or getting a legal opinion on which of “formulate” or “implement” mattered in what particular context.  Why would we have?  All the powers rested with Governor, and there was no particularly need to clearly delineate formulation activities from implementation activities, either in the present, or in thinking about contigency planning.

In practice, and on a day to day basis, under the current system the two activities are fairly clearly divided: monetary policy formulation is, in effect, things up to including the OCR decision, while implementation involves the detailed management of market conditions to deliver something akin to the chosen level of the OCR.

But the broad parameters of an OCR system itself –  indeed, even the decision to have an OCR (we’ve only had one for 19 years) –  doesn’t fall neatly on either side of a line between “formulation” and “implementation”.  And then there is foreign exchange intervention for monetary policy purposes. Perhaps things have changed, but when I was there decisions that the preconditions for intervention were right (the “traffic light system”) were made by the Governor in the OCR Advisory Group context, while (rare) decisions to actually intervene were made by the Governor directly liaising with the Financial Markets operational department.

It doesn’t matter much at present, because all powers vest with the Governor, and how or whether he takes advice on individual bits of his monetary policy responsibilities is entirely up to him.

But in the Reserve Bank bill introduced last week splits those two functions apart.

Under the amended clause 8, it is intended that

The Bank, acting through the MPC, has the function of formulating a monetary policy….

and, in section 8(3)

The function of formulating monetary policy includes deciding the approach by which the operational objectives set out in a remit are intended to be achieved.

And in a new clause 9, we read

The Bank has the function of implementing monetary policy in accordance with this Act.

And later in bill, in the new clause 63B we read

The MPC must perform the function of formulating monetary policy in accordance with this Act

Neither “formulation” nor “implementation” is further defined in the Act at present, and I can’t see any attempt to add more specific definitions in the new bill, other than a circular definition which says that

formulating, in relation to monetary policy, has the meaning set out in section 8(3)

Which, to say the very least, isn’t very specific.

I have two concerns about this, which boil down to much the same point I was making in a post last week: this bill would results in a committee which is likely to be nothing more than figleaf, and which leaves all substantive power in the hands of the Governor (and his chosen management team).  That is likely to be even more so in the next serious recession, when the limits of conventional monetary policy (how far the OCR can be cut) are likely to be reached.  If that is the Minister’s intention, he should be honest enough to say so. If he is serious about building a stronger, more open institutions, not totally controlled by management, he needs to look again.

I suspect the intention of the wording of the bill is that OCR decisions (and only those decisions) should be made in, and by, the MPC.   That would be consistent with the explanatory note to the bill, which twice refers (loosely) to the goal being to institute an MPC “to make decisions on monetary policy”.

But the OCR itself is (rightly) not referred to in the Act.  And clause 8(3) only talks, very loosely, about “>deciding the approach by which the operational objectives set out in a remit are intended to be achieved”.   Couldn’t a Governor argue that not even the specific OCR decision is covered by that mandate?   The MPC might decide that it thought an inflation target should be achieved over, say, a two-year forecast horizon, but it isn’t clear why the Governor couldn’t insist that even specific OCR decisions were a matter for him alone, provided they weren’t inconsistent with the MPC’s “approach”.   That interpretation might be buttressed by the proposed wording around Monetary Policy Statements.  MPSs need the approval of the MPC, but the specific material an MPS has to cover is  (emphasis added)

specify the approach by which the MPC intends to achieve the operational objectives [and] state the MPC’s reasons for adopting that approach

I’m not suggesting such a departure is at all likely under the current Governor, but legislation should be written in a way that is robust, including to power-grabbers (either the Governor, or the MPC).   Specifically, it would be quite inappropriate for the Governor to be able to assert that OCR setting was purely his responsibility, and that MPC was only there to provide advice, even a decision, on the broad “approach” to achieving the remit goals.  It would make a mockery of the rhetoric around reform.
Similarly, I don’t think it should be acceptable for the Governor alone to decide to, say, scrap the OCR system itself (which would appear to be possible under the current legislative drafting) or to modify the system substantially in ways that led to much greater (or much reduced) volatility in key financial prices.  I’m not even convinced that choices around the policies the Bank adopts on what sort of collateral to take in its market operations, implementing monetary policy, should be matters for the Governor alone.  Such decisions have the potential to materially affect monetary conditions, and the achievement of the remit goals set for the MPC by the Minister of Finance.   At a bare minimum, the Governor should be required to consult with the MPC on such matters, and have regard to any comments or representations on such matters they wish to make.  Similarly, I don’t believe it should be acceptable for foreign exchange intervention decisions (the traffic lights) done for monetary policy purposes (or, indeed, the policy on such matters) to be made outside of the context of the MPC.

These issues might seem of second-order importance in normal times.  They have the potential to become hugely important in crisis periods, or in circumstances in which the limits of the OCR have been reached (recall that the Bank itself reckons the practical limit is only 250 basis point from here).  In those circumstances, if the MPC has power only over the OCR –  and perhaps not even secure statutory power there –  it will be all-but neutered; irrelevant to the real choices that the Bank management (and perhaps the government) is making.

Thus, for example, decisions to:

  • intervene heavily to drive down the exchange rate,
  • decisions to undertake substantial QE,
  • decisions to intervene to control yields on interest rate swaps

(all options touched on in the Bank’s recent article)

as well, potentially, as decisions around any limits on the volume of notes and coins, or on the conversion rates between settlement balances and notes and coins, would have potentially very large consequences for monetary conditions, and for the ability to meet the remit target

but I suspect the Governor would argue that they are all matters for him to decide, not choices for the MPC.

If the Governor successfully made such an argument, it would be unfortunate on at least two counts:

  • substantively, since the whole argument (made in the Explanatory Note, and in the Minister’s speech) is the benefits of diverse perspectives.  Such perspectives would be likely to be more valuable usual in an unconventional environment, which management had not previously experienced,
  • transparency.  The bill envisages requiring that some (pretty neutered) MPC minutes will have to be routinely published.  But if the important stuff of monetary policy is still being decided by the Governor –  not just him block-voting management in the committee – even what limited gains we might hope for around transparency and accountability will be foregone.

Of course, one way of looking at all this is to observe that if I’m right and the new legislation just cements in effective control by the Governor (through his management majority of the committee, and his likely clout with the board regarding the handful of externals) perhaps it doesn’t really matter very much.    Good people are likely to be reluctant to accept appointment, and that would simply be reinforced during a period when the OCR itself was neutered.

But, presumably the Minister doesn’t accept that interpretation (after all, he talks about the benefits of committees, diverse perspectives etc).  Nor, presumably, does the Opposition –  who talk up the risks to the independence of the Bank.  The legislation should be better-worded:

  • it should be explicit that the MPC has responsibility for decisions on the OCR or any official interest rate,
  • it should be explicit that the MPC has policy responsibility for matters to do with foreign exchange intervention done in support of monetary policy, and for policy parameters around domestic liquidity management,
  • it should be explicit that policy matters to do with, for example, QE should be matters for the MPC
  • operational decisions on matters within these mandates would be matter for the Governor, but accountable to the MPC,
  • and, at very least, the MPC should be free to make written representations on any other aspects of Bank responsibility which, in their view, are likely to affect their ability to deliver the remit objectives.

Consistent with that, of course, the MPC should have a clear majority of outsiders, and a clear majority of the members (preferably all) should be directly appointed by the Minister of Finance, without the involvement of the Bank’s (ill-qualified, illegitimate, and unaccountable) Board.

Treasury advice on rushing the Reserve Bank bill

From a Treasury paper to the Minister of Finance, written in March and pro-actively released yesterday (emphasis added)

Legislative Timeline
14. Officials’ recommended timeline, set out in Annex 2, would see drafting instructions issued in tranches from the end of April, and Cabinet approval of draft legislation by the end of August. Consistent with previous decisions, the recommended process does not allow for public consultation on an exposure draft of the legislation prior to the Bill being referred to select committee. You should note that this timeline is indicative only, and will depend on how quickly decisions are made, securing time in the House and the length of the select committee process.

15. Officials’ proposed timeline will allow the first reading of the Bill when Parliament resumes in the first week of September. Assuming the normal six month select committee process, this would enable Royal Assent by the end of April 2019.

16. The bid for space on the legislative agenda suggested the legislation would be passed this year. However, we do not recommend passing the legislation in 2018. Doing so would require shortening either the policy and drafting process, the select committee process or both. Reducing the time for either of these processes risks compromising the quality of the final legislation, and will make it harder to build public support for the reforms. A substantive select committee process that builds public support is particularly important given that the changes are to one of New Zealand’s major economic frameworks and that only limited public consultation was conducted during the policy development process.

17. If you want to pass legislation in 2018 and run a full select committee process, the policy and drafting process would need to be completed by early June. While this is not impossible, it would greatly increase the risks around introducing legislation. Risks could include introducing legislation with provisions with unintended consequences or new processes that are unworkable. This would make significant amendments likely during the select committee and the committee of the whole House stages.

Since the bill introduced this week has to be reported back from select committee by 3 December, it seems likely the government wishes to pass the bill this year, contrary to Treasury’s fairly-trenchantly worded advice.

I’m a little torn.  I’m keen to see a statutory committee in place, and I don’t usually put much store in Treasury’s economic analysis (and see Eric Crampton on the limited number of economists they are recruiting), but they should know something about policy development and legislative processes.  And they clearly think this legislation is being rushed, in an unnecessary, inappropriate, and risky way.

Debating the Reserve Bank bill

The first reading debate yesterday on the Reserve Bank amendment bill wasn’t exactly Parliament at its finest.    There was plenty of courtesy on display (with one exception, which I’ll come to below) but not much rigour, and not much regard for the importance of building strong and robust, open and transparent, institutions.

The National Party voted against the first reading.  According to the party’s finance spokesperson, Amy Adams, they support the move to establish a statutory Monetary Policy Committee

I want to deal reasonably briefly with the monetary policy committee, because that is an area where we see a lot of merit in what has been proposed. Of course we want to go to select committee and see what comes in, and we may well find issues that need exploring, but, at this stage, I think the monetary policy committee makes good sense.

but they oppose the change to the statutory goal of monetary policy.  It isn’t entirely clear from her speech read together with those of her colleagues whether they oppose the change because it will make no difference, simply reflecting what the Bank already does, or because they think it will make a difference, and they don’t like the difference it might make.    The former seems a very weak ground on which to oppose legislation: it is a good thing, not a bad thing, to ensure that legislation and practice are kept in line (arguably, for example, the Reserve Bank of Australia’s and the Federal Reserve’s legislation should have been updated long ago).

As I noted in yesterday’s post, I don’t much like the formulation of the statutory objective for monetary policy contained in the bill.  That isn’t because I think it will be deeply damaging, just that the government and their advisers haven’t done a very good job in capturing what it is that we should expect from an active discretionary monetary policy.  National Party members were at pains to point out that there is no long-term tradeoff between price stability on the one hand and employment/unemployment on the other hand.  And, of course, that is quite right.  It has been well-known for decades.   But equally well-known –  and for even more decades –  is that there is a relationship in the shorter-term.  It is why we have an active monetary policy.     But there is no sense of that distinction in the drafting the government has brought before Parliament.

Thus, I repeat the suggested wording I included in yesterday’s post

“Monetary policy should aim to keep the rate of unemployment as low as possible, consistent with maintaining stability in the general level of prices over the medium-term.”

or the sort of wording I proposed last year when I was a discussant at the seminar where Labour launched its policy.

To promote and safeguard price stability and the highest degree of employment [or lowest degree of unemployment] that can be achieved by monetary policy

That drew heavily on the language used in the Reserve Bank Act in the 1950s, introduced by a National Party finance minister.

One wants the Reserve Bank to do all it can to keep unemployment low, but only to the point where that is not in conflict with medium-term price stability.  In severe recessions –  mostly what we worry about, since these are human lives that are scarred –  “all it can” is quite a lot.  I don’t think the government has the wording right, and the National Party is right to push back, but if they are as serious as they say about working constructively in the select committee, it should be possible to find better wording which reflects the signicant short-run potential of monetary policy, and the very limited medium to long-term potential to do anything other than maintain price stability (or some similar nominal goal).

The complacency of the National Party probably shouldn’t have surprised me, just coming off nine years in government, but it did.    There were ludicrous claims –  from one backbencher old enough to know better – that for 30 years “the economy has gone incredibly well”, odd suggestions that the inflation target and price stability were themselves in conflict, and more specific ones about about the excellence of the Reserve Bank’s stewardship, even the suggestion that the new Governor will do a “superb job”.  Perhaps they have forgotten already that it is only a few weeks since the Opposition leader had a press statement out criticising the Governor?   Perhaps they are unbothered by past debacles like the MCI, or more recent episodes where the single decisionmaking Governor started lashing out at his critics, while refusing to ever substantively engage on issues?

But perhaps the most disconcerting claim was that there had never been an issue around unemployment and monetary policy in New Zealand.   On the Reserve Bank’s own numbers New Zealand went through seven years of a negative output gap (2008 to 2015), core inflation has been below the target focal point for eight years now, and the unemployment rate was above the Bank’s own estimate of a NAIRU for eight years (only dropping down to around that level in the last year or so).    Now clearly that was a failure in terms of the objectives set for the Bank, even without any sort of explicit employment/unemployment objective; on average monetary policy should have been run with lower real interest rates over much of that period.  But it seems to me that there is a reasonable argument to be made that had the Bank been obliged to, say, use monetary policy to keep the unemployment rate as low as possible, consistent with medium-term price stability, we might have had slightly better outcomes –  notably for those people who were involuntary unemployed, a scarring experience, during that period.

Oddly, the Minister of Finance never makes this argument –  consistent with his refusal ever to disagree with, or criticise, the Governor when he himself was in Opposition.  He should.   The experience of the last decade isn’t greatly to the credit of the Reserve Bank.  Perhaps they mostly had the best of intentions.  But they did poorly, and real people suffered as a result.    A reorientation of the target, focusing a bit more on the short-term stabilisation aspects, without sacrificing medium-term nominal stability, with strong reporting requirements –  and the right people –  could have made some useful difference.   (And, to stress that I’m not going to be tarred as some inflationista, in my ideal world the inflation target itself would be lower than it is.)

I wanted to pick up comments from two other speeches.  The first was from Chloe Swarbrick of the Green Party.  Whatever my differences with the Green Party, they deserve considerable credit for being the first party to call for a statutory Monetary Policy Committee, and historically they have also put a lot of emphasis on securing greater openness and transparency from the Reserve Bank (and used to greatly annoy the Bank by regularly requesting copies of Reserve Bank Board minutes, inadequate as they are).

In the course of her speech yesterday she made this comment

I think this piece of legislation, this bill, is a fantastic starting point for providing greater transparency and accountability for one of our most fundamental institutions.  This is, ultimately, about democracy.

If only that were so.   At very best, in respect of the Monetary Policy Committee, it is a baby-step in the right direction.  More realistically, it is a step away from accountability, and towards more power for unelected people (not even technocrats) with no visibility, no public accountability, and a majority of whom will have been appointed by the previous government.

For all its weaknesses, one feature of the current system is that it is very clear who should be accountable when the Reserve Bank gets it wrong, or even makes a controversial call that reasonable people differ over.  It is the Governor.  Effective accountability isn’t very strong, since the Board is supine, Ministers typically afraid of openly disagreeing with Governors, and market economists often cowed (either by threats from the Governor –  as in the Toplis case –  or more generally by the need to maintain relationships, access, and so on to an entity that regulates their employer).  But responsibility –  credit and blame –  is clear.      The same goes for good monetary policy committee systems, such as those in the UK, the United States, or Sweden  (actually, the same goes for Parliament itself, or even your dysfunctional local council –  there is individual responsibility).   But recall that the Minister of Finance has already said that he wants decisionmaking to be by consensus, no public record of who is dissenting and why, no opportunity for MPC members to articulate their views publicly, and so on.  We’ll have published minutes, which looks on paper like a small step forward, but with the amount gagging the Minister seems to envisage, it is unlikely to be a material win for transparency.    It looks a lot like a fig-leaf.        Not only will accountability be diffused and weakened –  in a quite unnecessary way – but these closed systems weaken any incentive for anyone appointed as an external member to invest heavily in the process. Free-riding, going along with the Governor as much as possible, will offer the best risk-return strategy (after all, challenge the Governor and you could be sacked, or not reappointed, and there is no opportunity for your views –  in an area of huge uncertainty –  to get a public airing.

And what of democracy?   The Governor was appointed by the Board –  oh, the Minister took the name to Cabinet, but he could only take the name proposed by the Board (or tell them to go away and come back with another name of their choosing.   The Board –  when the Orr appointment was made –  had all been appointed by the previous government (clearly out of sympathy with any sort of employment focus).  The current Deputy Governor was appointed by the previous Governor –  him of silencing critics, undershooting inflation etc –  and his supine board.  Both these appointees will be members of the new MPC.   The one or two new internal appointees will be appointed by the Minister, but only on the recommendation of the Board, who in turn will be guided by the Governor.    As I noted yesterday, the external appointees will also be chosen by the Board and the Governor (and recall that the Governor is on the Board), subject to an effective gubernatorial veto.  These appointments won’t be made until next year, but even by early next year, a majority of the Board members –  shocking track record, no expertise in the field, no accountability or scrutiny at all – will have been appointed by the previous government.

That isn’t democracy.  You couldn’t even call it rule by technocrats or philosopher kings, since the Board members are themselves just a bunch of company directors, academics etc, with no expertise, no legitimacy, no mandate.  And yet the Labour Party thinks –  apparently with support from both National and the Greens –  that these people should decide who makes monetary policy, the principal lever of short-term stabilisation policy.  I believe in the importance of democracy.   This isn’t it.

It is simply normal practice to have major appointments made directly by the relevant minister (or Cabinet, or on advice by the Governor-General).  It is strikingly abnormal to have appointments to major discretionary roles –  in central banks, or elsewhere in government –  so much out of the hands of elected politicians.  It would be a material step backwards, especially given the weakened accountability the government is proposing.  The National Party spokesperson is apparently worried that external members might be political hacks or under political pressure.  On the one hand, the Governor (at present) is probably much more susceptible to pressure, since he has lots of other battles to fight, including around his financial stability responsibilities. But perhaps more importantly, the dominance of politically-appointed decisionmakers is the norm in central banks abroad.  Those countries manage macroeconomic stability just fine.  It is also the norm in New Zealand –  I devoted a whole post to go through other roles.  Politicians appoint the Police Commissioner, members of the Commerce Commission, the Parole Board, the Governor-General herself, and all individual judges.    There is no good reason why appointments to key, powerful, Reserve Bank roles should be different: ministers should appoint directly, and thus be fully accountable for, people who wield such power on our behalf.

The final contribution to the debate that I wanted to comment on was that of the ACT Party, David Seymour.   Whenever I’m tempted to consider supporting ACT, all I need do is listen to one of Seymour’s speeches.  Here are some lines from his speech yesterday.

Thank you, Madam Assistant Speaker. I rise, on behalf of the ACT Party, in opposition to this bill—this piece of ministerial vanity and economic vandalism.

…..

Could it be that this is not just dumb policy; this is actually evil policy. This is an erosion of the independence of the central bank. This is the current Government attempting to take control of the printing presses—not quite Venezuelan style; just in a sort of smaller capacity than they’re used to. It is a way that this Government will be able to influence the supply of money, and I bet this House that, when this is place, and when their committee is making the decisions, we will no longer have independent monetary policy; we will have a pattern that will be detectable in a few electoral cycles, which will tell us that the money supplied goes up and inflation goes up and the economic sugar hit comes out right before an election, and then, once the election is gone, they take the punchbowl away and the New Zealanders get the economic instability that the Reserve Bank Act was designed to take away.

This is a black letter day in New Zealand lawmaking. The Minister either has no idea what he’s doing or he has every idea what he’s doing.

Reasonable people can debate the merits of altering the statutory objective.  Reasonable people can debate the design of a committee system.  Perhaps reasonable people can even debate whether a committee is a good idea, although we use them in almost every other aspect of public (and private –  company boards, tennis club committees, church synods etc) life.  But a contribution like this says more about the speaker than it does about the issues.    And, rightly or wrongly, there is just no sign in market pricing (eg gaps between conventional and indexed bonds) that the market shares Mr Seymour’s fears.

One hopes that Finance and Expenditure Committee deliberations will prove constructive, and that the government will be open to amendments.  Given that the chair and deputy chair of the committee are both part of the government (both holding Under-Secretary positions), I’m not that optimistic, but we’ll see.  I did notice one National Party speaker yesterday praising the committee chair (Michael Wood), and Wood’s speech in the debate was probably the best of them, so time will tell.

Reserve Bank of New Zealand (Monetary Policy) Amendment Bill

The first reading of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (Monetary Policy) Amendment Bill is on Parliament’s order paper for today.      This bill is designed primarily to give effect to the policy decisions the Minister of Finance announced a few months ago, to change the statutory objective of monetary policy, and to create a statutory Monetary Policy Committee responsible for the conduct of monetary policy (details of which were set out here and here).

There are, however, some other changes proposed.  In particular, there seems to have been –  at last –  a recognition that the process used last year to appoint Grant Spencer as “acting Governor” was probably not lawful.   The proposed amendments would deal with any similar situation (created by the timing of an election) by allowing the extension of the term of an incumbent by (or a temporary appointment for) up to six months.   The ability to extend terms seems sensible (provided it can be done only once), although I’m less sure about the proposal to appoint a new person as Governor for six months.  But individual vacancies should matter less under the new model (at least as regards monetary policy) because of the move to a statutory committee.

In addition, the bill sensibly proposes to remove the age limit (age 70) for the Governor.   There was a strong case for some age limit with a single decisionmaker (given the extensive powers and the extreme practical difficulty of removing someone who was in clear mental decline) even if age 70 was probably now too young.  With a shift to a committee decisionmaking structure (at least for monetary policy) the issue becomes somewhat less important.  However, for now at least, the Governor still will wield enormous power around bank and non-bank financial regulation, so I’m not totally comfortable with the change.  Higher court judges, for example, must retire at 72.

There are lots of detailed provisions in the bill. some of which are sensible, and others fairly problematic. I will be making a submission to the select committee, and so will cover many of the issues in more detail then, with the benefit of a bit more time to reflect on how the specific provisions might work.

In the rest of this post, I wanted to come back to the two big changes that are being proposed.

I’ve been sympathetic for some time to the addition of a real economy dimension to the statutory objective for monetary policy.  The only case for active discretionary monetary policy is –  and always has been –  cyclical stabilisation.   We don’t need a Reserve Bank to deliver broadly stable price levels over the longer-term, and even if we have a Reserve Bank it doesn’t need to be active.  But there is a case for active monetary policy to limit the downsides from severe adverse shocks to money demand or aggregate demand –  the Great Depression was the most obvious example, and indeed the backdrop to the establishment of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.  Monetary policy should do what it can, subject to a longer-term nominal constraint (eg price stability).

I’m less keen on the specific formulation in the government’s new bill

The Bank, acting through the MPC, has the function of formulating a monetary policy directed to the economic objectives of—

(a) achieving and maintaining stability in the general level of prices over the medium term; and

(b) supporting maximum sustainable employment.

That formulation has a number of problems:

  • the whole concept of what monetary policy can do is to avoid (or keep to a minimum, consistent with price stability) periods of excess capacity.  Despite Treasury’s attempt to argue otherwise in the Explanatory Note to the bill, “maximum sustainable employment” is not a measure of excess capacity.  Unemployment is much closer to an excesss capacity measure.
  • the wording treats employment as good in itself, whereas labour is an input (a cost, including to those who supply it) and a high-performing high productivity economy might well be one in which people preferred  to work less not more.  Speaking personally, as a non-participant in the labour force I feel slightly judged by the wording –  as if, by not being a good Stakhanovite, I’m not doing my bit,
  • the wording makes no attempt to integrate the two dimensions of the goal,
  • it continues to suggest that active monetary policy is primarily about medium-term price stability.  As noted earlier, we don’t need monetary policy for that goal.  Instead, medium-term price stability is more like a constraint (a really important one) on the use of monetary policy to keep the economy operating close to capacity.

I’d prefer that the goal was specified as something like

“Monetary policy should aim to keep the rate of unemployment as low as possible, consistent with maintaining stability in the general level of prices over the medium-term.”

It isn’t anywhere near as radical as it might seem.  The working definition of “stability in the general level of prices over the medium-term” could be kept exactly as it now (ideally, lowered a bit once the lower bound issues are resolved).  But it is clearer, and better aligns with what we should look for from the Bank and the new MPC.

The Minister’s announcement a few months also (sensibly) proposed moving away from the current target-setting system (Governor and Minister agree before the Governor is appointed) to one where the Minister sets the objective and the MPC as a whole is responsible for implementing policy to give effect.

Currently, the PTA is an agreement between the Minister of Finance and the Governor. Looking forward, as the MPC will be collectively responsible for making monetary policy decisions, it would be inappropriate for the Governor to be the sole member of the MPC to agree the operational objectives for monetary policy. As a result, we are changing to a model where the Minister of Finance sets the operational objectives for monetary policy. These objectives will be set after nonbinding advice from the Reserve Bank and the Treasury (as the Minister’s advisor) is released publicly.

Unfortunately, the bill before Parliament today materially waters down the (very welcome) promise in the last sentence.    Under that statement from the Minister, the operational objectives would be set only after both the Reserve Bank and the Treasury had provided advice, and that advice had been made publicly available.

In the bill itself, there is no reference to advice from Treasury, and no commitment that any such advice they proferred would be made public (although no doubt eventually an OIA request would bring it to light).   The Bank is required to give advice, but that advice remains specifically that of the Governor himself.  The Governor must consult with the other MPC members (but is not even specifically required to “have regard” to their views), and the Governor’s advice is now only to be published after the Minister has published the new operational objectives.

Interestingly, the bill explicitly requires public consultation by the Bank before it submits its advice on the operational objectives (“remit”), and it is required to “have regard” to those comments.  But instead of the consultation requirement being cast broadly, the Bank is able to determine “the matters the Bank considers would assist it to prepare its advice”.   Used wisely by a good Governor it wouldn’t be a problem, but legislation is largely about protecting the system from bad or weak individuals: in the case of a bad, weak, or just overconfident Governor, that person could deliberately rule anything s/ he found awkward out of scope when inviting public submissions.  And there is no requirement that the submissions themselves should be made public –  an omission that really should be corrected.

Much of the bill is about keeping as much power with the Governor as possible, while still instituting a committee.  Sadly, it is probably a recipe for a fig-leaf committee, rather than for the sort of real and positive change that is needed.    As just one example, although future Monetary Policy Statements will have to be approved by the MPC, the bill introduces (something I’ve previously suggested) a requirement that at least once every five years a longer-term report on the formulation and implementation of monetary policy be published.   But instead of, for example, mandating the commissioning of independent assessments and evaluations, this report will be the product of the Governor alone.   The Governor will be required to consult the other  MPC members and “consider” the “comments (if any) of the MPC on the draft”, but not even a majority of the committee can alter the direction of the report if the Governor doesn’t agree.   It is bizarre and inappropriate, but seems to reflect the Minister’s preference for a fig-leaf.   Based on some of his other comments, it is not obvious that the rest of the MPC could go public even if they disagreed strongly with the Governor’s assessment.

In previous posts, I have touched on the way in which the Minister’s proposals will effectively maintain the near-complete domination of monetary policy by the Governor.  Perhaps as disconcerting is that they also increase the power of the Bank’s Board –  that group of unaccountable company directors and academics who’ve proved totally useless in ever holding successive Governors to account, and who have backed Governors without exception even as they have seriously overstepped the mark.

The new MPC will comprise the Governor, a single Deputy Governor, 1-2 internals, and 2-3 externals (plus a non-voting Treasury observer).  By law, there must be a majority of internals.  All of these people will be appointed by the Minister of Finance, at least on paper, but in reality the Minister will continue to have almost no real say over the people who wield the most powerful short-term macro policy lever.    Recall that the Minister can only appoint as Governor someone whom the Board has recommended.  Board members themselves may have been mainly appointed by a previous government.  The same procedure will now apply to the appointment of the Deputy Governor, but in practice one would expect the Governor to have a major influence on the name put forward by the Board.   The internal candidates will also be appointed by the Minister on the recommendation of the Board.  The Board will be required to consult the Governor on these appointments to the MPC, but as the appointees are most likely to be people already appointed by the Governor as (say) Chief Economist or Head of Financial Markets), the Board will have not have much effective say at all.

So the Governor –  who sets working conditions, and sets pay and conditions for the internals –  already has his majority.  But his control on the composition of the committee doesn’t stop there.  Because the Minister can only appoint the handful of externals on the recommendation of the Board, the Governor himself is a member of the Board, and the Board –  being non-experts themselves – is likely to be highly deferential to the Governor’s views on who should (and shouldn’t) be nominated.  There is no way the Board is going to recommend someone the Governor is uncomfortable with.  Good Governors will welcome challenge and diversity etc, but legislation isn’t really needed for good Governors, but for poor, weak, or insecure ones.

It is simply the wrong model.  It is, as far I can see, pretty much without precedent, leaving the elected Minister of Finance no degrees of freedom over who is appointed to conduct the most important part of short-term economic management policy.  We can, after all, hold the Minister to account.  We do nothing about the Governor, the Deputy Governor, or the MPC members all appointed, in effect, by the unelected Governor and unelected Board.   This isn’t how open and democratic societies are supposed to work.  It isn’t how central banks work in other comparable democratic countries, and it isn’t how we handle appointments to other major crown entities.

I’ve argued previously that a much superior model would be:

  • all members, including Governor and Deputy, appointed directly by the Minister of Finance,
  • a requirement for a clear majority of external members, and
  • non-binding confirmation hearings by FEC on all (external) appointees before they take office (mirroring the practice now adopted in the UK for the Bank of England MPC).

The amendment bill Parliament will be considering today does not really deal with the communications procedures etc that are envisaged –  most of that is delegated to a charter to be determined later.  The Minister has, however, already indicated that his bias is towards a system where decisions are reached by consensus if possible, and that although minutes will have to published, there would be no identification of individual dissenting votes or any ability for MPC members to openly express their own views on monetary policy and economic issues.   That will suit the Governor, but won’t advance the cause of good policymaking or of an open and accountable central bank.    The charters are supposed to be agreed between the Minister and the MPC (recall that the Governor will almost always have a built-in majority) but the bill provides that the first such charter –  from which it will be hard to deviate much for a long time –  will be agreed not with the first MPC but just between the Governor and the Minister.   No doubt, the Governor will ensure his personal and institutional interests are served.  Will the Minister care enough to look to the interests of the wider process and of the public?  (And will the Governor still be able to talk openly about climate change policy, infrastructure, capital gains taxes etc, and if he, then what about the rest of the committee, for whom monetary policy won’t be a fulltime job.)

As I said, this bill further increases the power of the Board.    Another example –  extraordinarily so given the Board’s own shocking record –  is that the Board will be required to approve a code of conduct for MPC members.   But instead of discussing those arrangements and provisions with the first MPC members, the bill provides for the Governor and the Board to cook up the code of conduct themselves, no doubt reflecting the interests and preferences of the Governor.

As for Board’s capability and credibility in this area, well where do I start?  In just the last couple of years:

  • they’ve backed the Governor in attacking a member of the public who brought to light a leak in an OCR annoucement,
  • they’ve backed the Governor is his attack on, and attempt to muzzle, BNZ’s chief economist,
  • they’ve demonstrated a flagrant disregard for the provisions of the Public Records Act (maintaining no minutes of any meetings involving the appointment of the new Governor),
  • they confirmed that they had provided no written advice to the Governor in recent years at all,
  • they have shown no sign of interest in resolving serious misconduct issues in a superannuation scheme they have considerable legal responsibility for.
  • their own code of conduct, when finally revealed, proved to have no conflict of interest provisions at all,
  • they seem to have no interest in acting to keep the current Governor on reservation, and
  • just this week, their chair has attempted to assert that Chatham House rules trump the Official Information Act.

A supine, lawless group.  Just the sort of people you would look to for leadership in this area…..     But, no doubt, just the sort of people who can be relied on to do the Governor’s bidding and avoid any openness, challenge, or serious scrutiny.  In fact, who can be relied on the ensure that the new MPC is little more than a figleaf.   One has to wonder who will be willing to accept appointment, for anything other than the status, the pay or perhaps just academic curiousity.  Those aren’t the sort of motives we need in a revamped Reserve Bank.

All in all, this legislation falls far short of what could, and should, have been.   The Governor should be a CEO servicing and supporting (and chairing) an open and accountable, ministerially appointed committee.  Instead, his empire –  his dominance –  will be intact.   It cements in the victory for the Bank establishment, and for the Governor personally.  I haven’t yet written about Stage 2 of the review now underway, but the possibility of good outcomes from that process took a big step back when the Minister agreed that the review would be jointly done by the Bank and Treasury (which side is going to be more motivated to fight its corner?) reinforced when it emerged that the review process is being led by a (seconded) member of the Reserve Bank’s own senior management team, who will have his own future, working for the Governor, to look to.

 

 

 

Still plumbing new depths

I know they shouldn’t, but the Reserve Bank still seems to have endless capacity to surprise, and not in a good way.  Another example turned up yesterday, when someone sent me a link to a Bloomberg story about a speech the chair of the board of the Reserve Bank, Neil Quigley, is giving today.

This is how the Waikato Institute of Directors bills the speech

Governance and decision-making at the Reserve Bank of New Zealand

The government has announced a review of the Reserve Bank Act focussing on governance and decision-making issues.  Key decisions in Phase 1 of the review have been announced, and Phase 2 is about to begin.  The key issues in the review relate to the move from the current “single decision-maker” model to a committee structure, and to changes in the role of the board of directors resulting from this.  The presentation will outline the unique role of the Reserve Bank Board under the current Act, the challenges of operating in this framework, and the ways in which the board’s role and powers are likely to change following the review of the Act.

Significant reforms are coming, which we haven’t seen the text of yet, and nor do we know anything about how those holding statutory positions expect to operate in the new world.

If you stump up $65 you could attend and find out more, unless that is you were part of the media.

Quigley declined a request for media to attend, an institute spokeswoman said.

There is also no sign that the Bank or the Board plans to release the text of Quigley’s speech.   And this time I largely agree with comments quoted in the article from Shamubeel Eaqub.

“There’s this great promise from Adrian Orr that things will change, and certainly he has been more engaged and more open, but in terms of the culture of the board and the organization it seems like very slow progress,” said Shamubeel Eaqub… “When it’s an issue as important as this, we would expect at least a speech to be available to the media.”

But he is probably going a bit easy on the Governor. The Governor can’t actually tell the Board chair what to do, but there can be little doubt that this particular speaking engagement and the (non)communications strategy around it will have been agreed jointly by the Governor and the Board chair.   After all, it is par for the course; pretty standard practice in all but one respect.

That one respect is that it is highly unusual for the chair of the Reserve Bank Board to be giving a speech in his capacity as chair at all.  Perhaps it has happened before, but I’m not aware of such occasions. In fact, it was concern that chairs would want to speak publicly that led to the misguided decision in 1989 to legislate to make the Governor chair of the Board, even though the Board’s primary role was to hold the Governor to account.  It took almost 15 years to fix that mistake.

The Board chair generally doesn’t speak at all –  and successive ones have repeatedly refused media comment on all sorts of issues – except through the bland Governor-covering Board Annual Reports.  In the 15 years these reports have been published, there has never been a single critical word about the Bank or the Governor: either they walk on water and simply never ever make mistakes, or the Board itself is essentially useless.  As I’ve argued previously, my interpretation is the latter one.  This same Board couldn’t bring itself even to criticise Graeme Wheeler for his wildly inappropriate attempts to silence the BNZ’s chief economist, and Quigley’s predecessor was positively egging Wheeler on in his public denunciation of a person who drew attention to what was shown to be a leak of an OCR announcement.

In this case, it appears that Quigely would not even front up himself and explain why he won’t (a) allow media to attend and report his speech, and (b) release his text or any relevant slides.  Instead, the acting head of communications at the Reserve Bank was wheeled out to defend the Board chair.  He didn’t do a particularly compelling job.

“Members of the Institute of Directors and their paying guests will not be privy to information from Professor Quigley that is not already in the public sphere,” said Angus Barclay, acting head of communications at the RBNZ. The bank gives presentations to private audiences because “the presence of news media at an event alters the nature of the discussion” and may dissuade guests from participating “in a two-way experience,” he said, speaking on Quigley’s behalf.

It seems highly unlikely that Quigley will say nothing that is not already public.  He is billed as talking about

the challenges of operating in this framework, and the ways in which the board’s role and powers are likely to change following the review of the Act.

Well, we’ve never heard anything from the Board or the chair about the challenges in the existing framework (as it affects the Board and its role), there is very little in the material released so far on how the Board expects things might change in future, and anything that is in the public domain isn’t from the horse’s mouth –  the people actually paid to do the monitoring, accountability, and reporting role.

And Barclay (for Quigley) undermines his own argument in the second part of that extract.  If selected members of a favoured audience are able to ask questions of a public official, and get answers from them, about pending reforms it seems almost certain that they will receive angles or emphases that aren’t available to the rest of us.   Even the argument that the presence of the media changes the character of the forum seems flawed.  The event could, for example, have been run on Chatham House rules grounds –  common enough in many fora, dealing with many, often sensitive, issues –  allowing the reporting of Quigley’s comments, and the reporting of questions from the floor, but not the identification of the questioner. (It was, for example, how the consultation session I attended at Treasury a few months ago on Reserve Bank reform issues operated –  one at which, as I’ve reported before, none of the attendees had any time for the Bank’s Board). It is hard to see how the nature of the function would be changed –  certainly not for the worse –  by adopting that sort of model.  Perhaps as importantly, despite the talk of a “two-way experience”, this isn’t billed as some sort of consultative session, but as an address from a public official holding a statutory office.     But even if it was such a “consultation”, (a) this is a powerful public agency we are dealing with, and (b) it is still no excuse for not releasing the text (it isn’t as if this is material the speaker has covered in similar addresses 100 times previously).

Barclay/Quigley then proceed to dig an even deeper hole for themselves.

Asked how banning media from tomorrow’s event squares with the bank’s stated communication aims, Barclay said: “Professor Quigley will communicate directly with a group of people who will be better informed after the event than they were at the start. That fits very well with our strategy to communicate more widely.”

The word ‘smart aleck” springs to mind.    Even more people would be better informed if Neil Quigley’s text was released, and if media representatives could attend and report his speech.   As it is, I’ve now lodged an Official Information Act request for the text, any slides, and in event that he is speaking without text or slides a summary of his presentation.  Since the material is being provided to some members of the public, there can be no credible grounds for withholding it from others.

One announced change coming in the new legislation is that in future the Board chair will be appointed directly by the Minister, to help make clearer that the Board works for the Minister and the public, not for the Governor, the Bank, or a quiet life for themselves.  Changing the chair would be a good and salutary step for the Minister of Finance to take, if that is he is at all serious about a more open and accountable central bank.  Better still would be to rethink, and dump the Board from its current role completely.

I guess shouldn’t really be surprised at this attitude from the Reserve Bank Board.  This is an entity that doesn’t even do the basics of its job tolerably well.  There is no serious scrutiny of the Governor –  certainly none that ever sees the light of day – there was complicitly in what was almost certainly an unlawful appointment of an “acting Governor” last year, there are no conflict of interest provisions in the Board’s code of conduct,  and –  as I’ve documented previously –  the Board has been in flagrant breach of the requirements of the Public Records Act.  Oh, and they aid and abet some pretty egregious financial sector misconduct (of which this particular case is only one example) –  appointing (and being able to remove at will) half the trustees of the Bank’s troubled superannuation scheme, and being required to approve any rule changes.  The Board members are probably all individually decent people (and I used to have a good relationship with Quigley) but they have taken far too many wrong turnings, and no longer serve a useful public purpose (protecting and promoting the Governor isn’t such a purpose).

Finally, as a reminder of how better, more open, central banks do things, here is a screenshot from the Reserve Bank of Australia’s 2018 speeches page.

rba speeches

A range of speakers, and where possible provision not just of the text but of a webcast, so that audiences can see where the speaker may have departed from the text, but can also see and hear questions and answers –  new material which, in New Zealand terms, is official information.   It just seems to be a standard condition of having an RBA speaker.  There is no reason why a similar approach could not be adopted here, both for the Bank itself (eg the potentially market sensitive post-MPS addresses, to which only favoured invitees among bank customers have access) and by the Board.    When senior officials speak, the default standard expectations should be public access, and open reporting.

If they are vaguely serious about being a government known for “open government” –  and there is little real sign of it so far – it must about time the Minister of Finance and the Minister responsible for open government to have a word with the Governor and the Board chair about what it means.  One can debate the merits of (say) pro-active release of Cabinet papers (something I generally favour) but there should be no debate about speeches by officials being made routinely available.  The Bank, and the Board, are falling well short of any sort of open government standard.  Perhaps some journalist could ask one or other Minister about this case, if only to get them on record washing their hands of any responsibility.

 

 

(Lack of) transparency at the Orr Reserve Bank

Since I have to spend a large chunk of the day at the Reserve Bank –  among other things, checking out how serious the Governor is about customer focus and about remediation when customers have problems (among the things he claims the right to demand from banks and insurers) in the case of the superannuation fund the Bank (=Governor) sponsors –  it seemed fitting to have a brief post focused on a Reserve Bank issue.

Long-term readers will recall that the previous Governor was notoriously secretive, except when it suited him.   Among the things he always refused to release were any minutes of any meetings of the Governing Committee (him and his two or three most senior staff).  The Governing Committee had been set up by Graeme Wheeler, and was sold to the world as the forum in which major decisions were made –  whether monetary policy, regulatory policy or whatever.   You might suppose that the records of such meetings would be of considerable public interest, and it is common internationally for the minutes of the meetings of any body responsible for monetary policy to be published, with a (typically) quite short lag.  But Graeme Wheeler seemed to think there was no legitimate case for such material to be released –  his model was that he should be obliged to tell us only what he wanted to tell us, how he wanted to tell it, and when he wanted to tell it.  That isn’t how the Official Information Act works, but that consideration never seemed to much bother the then-Governor.

But that was then.  Wheeler has left, bearing his CNZM, and we have a new Governor.  He talks a good talk about communicating more or better with outside audiences.  We’ve even had cartoons to help illustrate official documents, and at one press conference I think the assembled journalists were greeted in four languages.

So he seeks to build an impression of a more open Governor –  including by his (ill-judged)  willingness to talk freely about all manner of things that aren’t his responsibility.  And almost simultaneously with the Governor taking office, the Minister of Finance announced reforms he plans to legislate later in the year.  Under those (inadequate) reform proposals, there will be a statutory committee to make monetary policy decisions and –  fulfilling a Labour Party campaign pledge –  the minutes of the meetings of that new Monetary Policy Committee are to be published.  I’m sure that, if the Minister sticks to plan, they will be fairly anodyne minutes, but the indication has been that the minutes will outline any differences of view (even while not putting names to views or votes).  It will be a step forward when it happens.

And so, going into last month’s Monetary Policy Statement I noted that the new Governor could perhaps show his seriousness about being different from his predecessor, and get ahead of the forthcoming legislative provisions, by beginning to publish now the minutes of the Governing Committee (for meetings relevant to that MPS).   Ideally, as I noted, he would also pledge to publish the background papers for each MPS with a suitable lag (perhaps six weeks).

Nothing was forthcoming with the release of the Monetary Policy Statement –  just the cartoons, multi-lingual greetings (and a document itself that seemed to go down well with market economists).  So I lodged a request for the minutes of the Governing Committee meetings relating to the May MPS.

And last week I got my response.

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

  • section 9(2)(d) – to avoid prejudice to the substantial economic interests of New Zealand; and
  • section 9(2)(g)(i) – to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through the free and frank expression of opinions by or between officers and employees of the Reserve Bank in the course of their duty.

As advised previously, the Reserve Bank recognises the tension between disclosure and confidentiality and has considered your request in light of that tension. Public disclosure, in summary form, is essentially what happens with monetary policy decisions in a carefully considered media release and the full text of the Monetary Policy Statement. The process of deciding what to publish in these documents recognises and balances the tension between disclosure and confidentiality.

In other words, exactly the same approach adopted by the secretive and defensive Graeme Wheeler, and nothing is released at all.  Thus:

  • the date of the meeting,
  • the place the meeting was held,
  • the attendees at the meeting,
  • confirmation of the minutes of the previous meeting,
  • any subheadings outlining the nature of material discussed at the meeting,
  • and the final OCR (itself already published in the MPS)

all, in the Governor’s view, had to be withheld to protect the “substantial economic interests of New Zealand” or to protect “free and frank expression”.  I wonder if the Governor was worried there might one day be a debate about what day of the week it was.    The claim is so absurd it is hard to believe that serious people –  required to operate according to the principles of the Official Information Act –  could make the claim.  But the Governor does.

I can barely imagine a circumstance in which disclosure of material in such minutes could undermine the “substantial economic interests of New Zealand” (NB these aren’t the same as the “economic interests” of the Bank), especially when released several weeks after the MPS to which the discussion relates.  We aren’t talking about imminent bank failures here.  But perhaps there are such circumstances, in which case specific deletions  could be made and justified under this subsection.  Officials make such specific deletions every day (although not commonly, I gather, under this particular provision of the OIA).

The same goes for “free and frank”.  In the (extremely unlikely event) that the minutes ever recorded that the Deputy Governor (say) thought the Governor’s ideas about the OCR were barking mad, there might be a case for withholding that particular detail.  But no official writes minutes like that.    And recall that the Minister of Finance has already committed to the publication of minutes of the MPC a few months hence, once the legislation is in place.  Differences of view are supposed to be highlighted (even if not attributed by name).  It will be a small step forward, and the Minister has already decided that “free and frank” isn’t a good reason to withhold such material.

But the Governor clearly disagrees.  Perhaps he just wants to enjoy his last few months as the single decisionmaker.   But then –  it suiting him to do so –  he has already told us that all his advisers were unanimous last month that the OCR shouldn’t be changed.  So what can he possibly have to hide in those Governing Committee minutes?  The short answer is likely to be “nothing at all”, but he has quickly imbibed the traditional Reserve Bank resistance to Official Information Act scrutiny.

It is not a good sign.  I’ve been concerned that the reforms the Minister announced will be too weak to make any material difference, and suspicious that they will allow a Governor so inclined to dominate the new committee, suppressing debate and the serious examination of alternative interpretations or policy approaches.  Since Orr has never been one to encourage challenge or debate, that seemed a quite real and specific risk.  Which is why I thought I’d test the waters.  Had the Governor agreed to the release of MPS Governing Committee minutes (even with odd specific deletion) I’d have lauded him, and revised up my probabilities on his governorship, and the new MPC, proceeding well.

By simply refusing to release anything, it looks as though he has once again confirmed some of the fears people held (mostly quietly) about his appointment.  If so, that is a shame.   And however many languages he greets journalists in, however many cartoons he adds, serious scrutiny of powerful independent public agencies –  particularly as at present when all power is vested in one individual –  requires access to official information that won’t always suit the Governor.  Minutes of his policy committees are a good example, one most other Governors in advanced countries have come to live with, or even champion.

I’ve appealed this decision to the Ombudsman –  I might have a response by the end of next year –  but in a sense the point has already been made.  When it comes to things he is responsible for, Adrian Orr is no more open and transparent than his predecessor, who set the benchmark in quite the wrong places.  A government committed to more-open government (as the current one says it is) would have a quiet word to the Bank’s Board, and to the Governor, encouraging the Bank to think again.

Towards the Monetary Policy Statement

Tomorrow brings the first of the Reserve Bank Monetary Policy Statements under the new Governor, Adrian Orr.  I’ve noticed several preview commentaries headed up with plays on the Governor’s surname: BNZ’s was “Either Or”, and ASB’s was “Rowing with a new Orr” .  I was tempted to head up this post with “Rowing with just one Orr”, a reminder that –  for all the promised new legislation (at least in respect of the monetary policy powers) –  for the time being, the Governor governs alone.  One unelected official alone has the legal authority to make OCR decisions –  and to decide on all the other bits of policy and operations the Reserve Bank has statutory responsibility for.   It isn’t a good formula –  failing tests of both legitimacy and robustness.  It isn’t helped by the threadbare nature of the parliamentary scrutiny of the Bank and the Governor.    In the terms Paul Tucker uses in his new book, the Governor is an ‘overmighty citizen’.

That isn’t Orr’s fault.  The law is what it (unfortunately) is, and perhaps will soon be changed.   But the conduct of the Bank, and the Governor personally, is something that Orr has totally under his control.    One of the things former Bank of England Deputy Governor Tucker advocates in his new book is that if central banks want to sustain operational independence, and if that independence is to work for the good of society, an ethos of self-restraint is really important.   It is reiterated in the very last line of his entire book

“Beyond the parameters of the formal regime, an ethic of sefl-restraint should be encouraged and fostered.”

Society delegates a great deal of power to our independent central bank.  It can do us good (we hope, typically) or harm, but unelected officials who exercise such great power need to act, and speak, as if they know their limits.  They aren’t politicians, they have no general mandate, and if they have a platform it is for the purposes Parliament has set down, not to champion personal causes, or even to “help out” governments in other roles.   It is a distinctly limited role.

In his first six weeks in office, there have already been reasons to doubt that the Governor understands, or shares, that view –  itself all the more important when (formally) the Reserve Bank is a one-man show.   We’ve seen him stray well beyond the Reserve Bank’s areas of responsibility in various interviews, and in ways that could often be read as quite politically-aligned.  We’ve seen him all over the place on financial conduct issues, and the politics of possible inquiries –  none of which has anything to do with his mandate –  including rushing to sign on with the FMA’s populist demands of banks, which again have nothing to do with the Reserve Bank’s statutory mandate or powers.   You can win cheap popularity for a time by going with the mob –  or even with popular elite opinions –  but you safeguard the institution and its important role, over the longer-term, by doing what Parliament asks you to do, in a moderate and responsible manner, and leaving other stuff to other people.

The real test for the Governor tomorrow is unlikely to be the Monetary Policy Statement document itself –  much as the analysts will be looking for evidence of a distinctive Orrian perspective.  The test is much more likely to be the press conference an hour later, and perhaps even the Finance and Expenditure Committee hearing later in the day.    Given the Governor’s garrulous style to date, journalists must be almost salivating at the opportunity to tempt the Governor into some rash remark, as he answers questions, live and unscripted, for a prolonged period.   Much of the rest of the Reserve Bank must be ever so slightly uneasy.

The BNZ commentary put it this way

…it goes without saying that Adrian Orr’s presentation style in the post MPS news conference will be more dynamic than his predecessor.

“Dynamic” perhaps being a euphemism for things like freewheeling, unpredictable, entertaining –  not words that (for good reason) one typically associates with a central bank Governor.   Leaders of political parties, yes; central bank Governors, no.  Central bank press conferences shouldn’t an occasion to which to bring the popcorn.

In many ways, I’m sure an Orr press conference will be a welcome relief after many of the Wheeler ones.  The previous Governor often came across as morose and defensive –  and even he wandered off reservation at times (I recall an answer about the possible implications of some North Korean action).  But I hope we don’t see an over-correction from an exuberant new Governor.  We should certainly welcome a more open and frank exchange on monetary policy issues, perhaps even a Governor willing occasionally to acknowledge the odd mistake, but unpredictable free-for-alls aren’t going to be good for the institution, for the individual, or for the country –  gruesomely entertaining as they might well be in the short-term.

One of the last bits of data before the MPS came out yesterday: the Reserve Bank’s quarterly survey of expectations (the Bank itself will have had the data several days earlier).  There wasn’t much of great interest in the the quarter to quarter changes.  But it is worth nothing that respondents seem to think we’ve reached the peak of the economic cycle: after eight years of expecting the unemployment rate to fall further over the medium-term, for the last few quarters they’ve been expecting things to turn around (albeit only a bit).

Looking through the longer runs of data, a couple of things caught my eye.  Analysts  (me included) often don’t pay much attention to year-ahead measures of inflation expectations, which get tossed around by all sort of short-term effects (oil price changes, changes in taxes and government charges, and even climatic effects on fruit and vegetable prices).  On the other hand, it is also a horizon analysts know a little more about –  there are specifics and not just models –  and a horizon where, by the time the expectation is being recorded, the Reserve Bank can’t do much more about the outcome.   So I thought this chart, showing year-ahead inflation expectations since mid-2012 was a sober reminder that monetary policy hasn’t been quite right.

infl expecs 1 year

Recall that the target was 2 per cent inflation.  These expectations – with all their short-term noise –  haven’t been centred on 2 per cent, but something a bit lower.  Not surprisingly, outcomes have also been centred somewhere lower: headline CPI inflation averaged about 1 per cent over this period, and even the Bank’s preferred core inflation rate measure averaged 1.4 per cent.   So even at these sorts of short horizons, the analysts have had an upside bias to their inflation forecasts, and even those forecasts haven’t centred at 2 per cent.  Perhaps a question might be in order for the Governor tomorrow?

I was also interested in another longer-run chart.  The survey asks respondents where they think the 10 year bond rate will be at the end of the current quarter, and in a year’s time.  The difference between those two responses is an indication of how respondents think the underlying trends in interest rate markets will start to play out.  Here is a chart of the actual New Zealand 10 year bond yield going back to 1995 when these survey questions start,

10 yr bond may 18

There are cycles, of course, but the trend has been pretty clearly downwards, especially so since around 2011.

And yet here is what respondents to the Reserve Bank survey expected.

bond expecs

The expected changes are never that large, but what is interesting is the sign of the expected movement.  With the exception of pretty brief periods when domestic interest rates here were particularly high (mid 90s and the couple of years prior to the 2008/09 recession) the Bank’s respondents have persistently expected bond yields to start rising again.   Even the short-term variability in the series has been lower in the  post-recession period, such is the apparent strength of the view.     Respondents  –  no doubt like the Reserve Bank, which has repeatedly told us that in their view neutral interest rates are much higher than current rates –  have mostly just had the wrong model.  (I’m not sure what my views would have been in the early post-recession period, although they were probably similar to the consensus. I’ve been in the survey itself for the last three years and my records suggest that in none of those surveys have I predicted an increase in bond yields –  in all but one I picked a reduction.)

Quite possibly, similar surveys in other countries would have produced similar results, but it is a cautionary reminder of just how wrong the mainstream view has mostly been in the post-recession years.

Last year the Reserve Bank revised the survey to add questions about expectations of inflation five and ten years hence (previously we’d had only two-year ahead expectations).   It is still early days, but the results look much as you might expect: both five and ten year ahead expectations seem centred on 2.1 per cent, just a touch above the midpoint of the inflation target (my own expectations for these horizons, which stretch beyond the current Governor/government, are lower).  Two-year ahead expectations are about the same.   With current 10 year bond rates at around 2.8 per cent, and inflation expectations (in the survey) at around 2.1 per cent over the whole 10 years, respondents seem to think New Zealand real interest rates are very low (only around 0.7 percentage points).

But again we have the contrast between the recorded (and anonymous) views of local survey respondents, and the implied view of people putting money on the outlook for inflation.  The current 10 year nominal government bond yield features in both comparisons.

But what about our inflation-indexed government bond yields?  The 7.5 year bond was at 1.34 per cent yesterday, and the 12.5 year bond was at 1.7 per cent, suggesting a 10 year real government interest rate of around 1.5 percentage points.

And here is the gap between the yield on a 10 year nominal bond, and the two relevant inflation-indexed bonds.

IIBs may 18

There isn’t any sign that markets are trading as if they believe inflation over the next 10 years will average where the respondents to the Reserve Bank survey say it will.  Ten years from now is roughly halfway between those two indexed bond maturity dates: the latest observation of the average of those two series would be around 1.25 per cent.  People with a choice of holding indexed or nominal bonds to maturity (eg long-term superannuation funds) will be worse off holding conventional bonds if inflation is anything like what the survey respondents think than if they held indexed bonds.  It is a real money choice.  Bondholders are positioned consistent with the survey respondents being wrong.

I labour this point for two reasons.  First, one reason for having inflation indexed government bonds is to provide a market check on what people actually transacting are acting as if inflation will be (rightly or wrongly).  And second, because when it regularly tells us that medium to long-term inflation expectations are stable at around 2 per cent, the Reserve Bank relies on survey measures, and appears to put no weight on market measures at all, even though they are telling a quite different story (and in fairly settled times).  The Reserve Bank never attempts to justify this one-eyed approach, and never seems to reference market-based expectations measures at all.

Given that the Bank itself, and survey respondents, have been so persistently wrong about inflation (and about interest rates) it might be worth someone –  journalist or MP –  asking the new Governor tomorrow about whether he is more confident average inflation is finally about to rise than people staking money on the issue appear to be, and if so what is the basis for his confidence.  Open engagement on that sort of issue is just the sort of thing that might have people reasonably thinking more highly of the new Governor.

(In a similar vein, the Minister of Finance has promised that the minutes of meetings of the future statutory Monetary Policy Committee will be published in a timely way.  There would be nothing to stop the Governor taking the lead now and publishing –  tomorrow or with a lag of no more than a couple of weeks – the minutes of any meetings of his Governirng Committee relating to tomorrow’s MPS and the associated OCR decision.  Doing so would be a small, but telling, promissory note, a token foreshadowing a new era of greater transparency.)

Why not split up the Reserve Bank?

That is, deliberately, a slightly ambiguous title for the post.   I favour splitting the Reserve Bank in two, setting up a new New Zealand Prudential Regulatory Authority to pick up the regulatory and supervisory responsibilities the Bank currently has (subject to various refinement).   I’ve made the case here and here, and late last week highlighted my former colleague Geof Mortlock’s new article articulating the case for change.   We know that the Reserve Bank’s conduct of those functions isn’t highly regarded and the minutes (and OIA releases) suggest that the Reserve Bank’s Board –  paid to hold the Governor to account in the public interest –  were asleep at the wheel while this situation was developing.  All told, I reckon there is a pretty clear-cut case – in principle, and based on the actual track record – for structural reform.  Structural reform is never a panacea, but with the right will, and the political determination that things will be done better in future, it can play a part, making a demonstrable break with the past and establishing a new and better institutional culture.

But, of course, there are counter-arguments.  The Reserve Bank is likely to be making them forcefully at present.  I suspect the Governor’s populist participation in the current attack on the banks – not grounded in any of his own legislation, not related to any systemic soundness threats – may be a part of that effort, wanting to appear “useful” to the government and somehow “in touch” with some sort of “public mood”.  (If so, that in itself should be grounds enough for structural and personnel changes.)

If I were the Bank I would probably be trying to arrange a visit from (Sir) Paul Tucker, former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, who has just published a new book Unelected Power, on the delegation of economic powers to independent agencies, with a particular focus on central banks.  Despite his background on the markets side of the Bank of England, Tucker didn’t leave officialdom to make money in the financial sector, but instead turned to academe and has produced an impressive book.  I’ve already referred to it in a couple of recent posts, and expect to do so in a few more relevant to the current efforts to overhaul the Reserve Bank Act.    As one UK commentator recently described it

….it is mainly about central banking, and on this is it authoritative. It will be an essential read for everybody involved in monetary policy, or researching it.

Not by any means will everything he writes be music to the ears of our central bankers, but Tucker’s views on the structural separation issue will be.  Perhaps that isn’t too surprising, since he was Deputy Governor at a time when the British government was bringing the financial sector supervisory and regulatory functions back inside the Bank of England (albeit with separate government-appointed decisionmaking structures for the various functions).  The Bank of England model informed Iain Rennie’s report last year, and if a decision is finally made to leave all the existing Reserve Bank functions together a structure like that of the Bank of England (but slimmed down for our circumstances) would probably be the way to go.

Tucker doesn’t argue that the regulatory and supervisory functions have to be in the same institution as monetary policy but that, subject to certain important conditions, it is better if they are.    To my mind, one of the weaknesses of his book is that it is very focused on the US and the UK (with some discussion of ECB/Europe but the issues are very different there given the idiosyncratic relationship between the ECB –  set up by international treaty and not really very accountable to anyone –  other EU institutiuons, and the national states of the EU/eurosystem).  Thus he simply doesn’t engage with the experience of the many other advanced countries – in fact, most of those outside the euro –  where the primary role in prudential regulation/supervision is undertaken by an entity other than the central bank.   This was the list of such countries I ran the other day

Canada, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Korea, Japan, Poland, Chile, Turkey, Mexico, Switzerland, and Iceland

It is a mix of large and small, of countries with very big financial systems operating internationally and countries with mostly domestic banks, of countries where the split has been longstanding (eg Canada) and countries where it has been more recent (eg Australia), and countries that ran into financial crisis in 2008/09 and countries that did not.  I’d find Tucker’s claim for the superiority of his model (essentially the UK one) more compelling if he’d addressed the experience of some of these countries.

As I read his material on this issue, it seemed to me that Tucker had two main arguments for keeping prudential supervision/regulation and monetary policy together.

The first of these is about the central bank’s lender of last resort function (for which the relevant statutory provision in our legislation needs refinement).  A central bank is the only agency with the unquestioned ability to provide immediate liquidity to an individual bank, or to the system as a whole, when severe liquidity pressures arise –  whether it is a run to physical cash, or simply a freezing up of interbank markets leaving some players unable to operate with external injections of liquidity.     Failure to respond to systemwide increases in liquidity demand will, all else equal, be likely to result in the central bank falling short of its inflation target (through the resulting financial crisis and economic shakeout).  Provision of liquidity, and a responsiveness to changes in demand, is an integral part of modern central banking (even though the stress events may not occur even as frequently as once a decade –  in the New Zealand case, Y2K and the liquidity pressures around 2008/09).

Liquidity provision usually involves either buying assets outright from a bank, or lending on the security of those assets (mainly repo agreements).  That is easy when it involves the outright purchase of a well-known widely-traded asset like a government bond.  But it gets trickier when it is a loan (in economic substance, if not legal form) and when the assets involved are pretty opaque and not generally traded at all, and when the general injunction –  enshrined in legislation in some countries –  is that central banks should only lend to solvent institutions (solvency here being a positive net assets test, not an “ability to meet payments as they fall due” test).    To caricature just slightly, Tucker argues that a PhD in macroeconomics won’t be much use in enabling a central bank to decide whether or not to provide funds to a bank that comes knocking.  You need, instead (or as well), detailed banking and credit expertise.  Specifically he notes

Even opponents of “broad central banking” generally accept that, as the lender of last resort, the central bank cannot avoid inspecting banks that want to borrow.

Going on to argue that

A central bank must be in a position to track the health of individual banks during peacetime if it is to be equipped to act as the liquidity cavalry.

I’m not persuaded, for a number of reasons.  First, of course, we don’t “inspect” banks in New Zealand at all (but that is trivial point).   Second, clearly many countries operate with exactly the sort of model Tucker deems impossible or inadmissible (presumably by relying on some peacetime exchange of information, and wartime written recommendations or assurances from the prudential regulatory agency).   Third, the central bank making the decision to lend is not the only option: it would be possible to envisage a model in which the central bank was simply the operational agent, but the credit risk from any crisis support to an individual institution was taken directly by the government, on the advice (and analysis) of the prudential regulatory agency.   And, finally, LLR powers aren’t the only relevant ones.  In the 2008/09 crisis, perhaps the most important single regulatory response in New Zealand was the deployment of the Minister of Finances’s extensive guarantee powers (under the Public Finance Act).    The Minister of Finance doesn’t do prudential supervision, and to the extent he needed comfort that any institutions guaranteed were likely to be solvent, he had to rely on advice from officials.  In this case, it was primarily the Reserve Bank, but it could as easily have been advice from a Prudential Regulatory Authority.   The same goes for choices (regrettable as they may be) to bail out individual institutions.

My claim isn’t that there can never be any advantages in having prudential supervision and central bank liquidity operations in the same entity, just that the case for them to be so isn’t generally compelling once set against the other arguments for structural separation.  In a crisis, it is typically all hands to the deck (including, for example, the Treasury and the Reserve Bank working together, even though they are separate institutions) and. more generally, there are numerous examples of interagency arrangements for information sharing.   It is undoubtedly important for all relevant agencies to coordinate closely, and have in place appropriate protocols and be prepared to run exercises to war-game the handling of crises.  But the functions don’t all need to be in the same agency, and there are likely to be costs in normal times to having them all together.

One point Tucker touches on elsewhere, but not here, is the importance of having people running functions believing in them.  It is, for example, dangerous to have financial supervision (or AML) in an institution where the chief executive doesn’t really believe in the importance or value of the function.  Reasonable people could argue that that –  rather than separation –  was part of the UK’s problem in 2007: the then Governor, Mervyn King, seemed quite averse to lender of last resort responsibilities, even though they were still an intrinsic part of the powers assigned to the Bank of England.

Tucker’s other main argument for keeping prudential and monetary policy functions together is one he lists under a heading “Harnessing the authority of the central bank”. noting that

If an economy’s central bank is already endowed with both authority and legitimacy, giving it responsibility for stability might be preferable to the uncertainties of starting afresh. In particular, the risks of industry capture might be reduced, as monetary policy makers’ standing in the community does not depend on bankers.

I’m not even persuaded by that final sentence – too many central bank policymakers have seen their post-central bank opportunities being among the bankers (just among Governors, Glenn Stevens, Ian Macfarlane, Ben Bernanke).     Tucker’s argument appears to be made in the UK context, where the prudential functions were split out of the Bank of England after 1997, into a new standalone prudential agency.  Perhaps the FSA never had the prestige of the Bank of England but it isn’t obvious that the problems the UK ran into were a reflection of lack of prestige or legacy legitimacy.  Political emphasis on promoting the financial sector was a significant part of the story.  And the Bank of England’s own analysis of the emerging macro risks didn’t exactly cover the institution in glory.

But, perhaps more importantly, there are other case studies.  The Reserve Bank of Australia had been around for decades when APRA was split out of it. It looks to have been a pretty successful split, and it isn’t at all obvious now that the RBA enjoys any greater authority or respect in its areas of responsibility than APRA does in its.   And, given the feedback on the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s regulatory stewardship, I don’t suppose anyone would want to mount a serious argument here to leave the functions together because the Reserve Bank’s reputation and authority stands so high.

As it happens, Tucker isn’t too keen on New Zealand’s contribution to public sector management, including the notion (from the New Public Management literature of the 1980s) that one function per agency helps to enhance accountability.

In the UK, I suspect that NPM was a subtle (and baleful) influence on the 1997 decision to transfer prudential supervision away from the Bank of England.  That mattered beyond Britain’s shores. Given London’s position as a global financial centre and given that various other countries, including China and Korea, followed the UK, at least in some cases probably encouraged by the IMF, the UK contrived to put the world onto a false, even delusional, path,  Administrative fashions come unstuck eventually, and this one did spectacularly.

Methinks he doth protest too much  (even as he goes on to note that there are hazards in having the functions together).

He highlights one issue which I hadn’t given much thought to, arguing that if the central bank is to be responsible for both monetary policy and prudential supervision it needs to have the same degree of autonomy in each function.  He argues that if the central bank has less authority in supervisory areas than in monetary policy, it could provide a wedge through which politicians could exert pressure on the Bank over monetary policy.  I’m not so sure that is right or that, realistically, it is that important an issue especially if (as he insists) each function has its own statutory committee, and its own direct accountability.

But if there is something in what Tucker says, it would reinforce my doubts about keeping the functions together.  At present, in the New Zealand system the PTA is set every five years (and central bank budgets too), and beyond that there is no routine ministerial involvement in monetary policy.  On the regulatory side, plenty of powers are reserved to ministers (eg around failure management, AML, the rules of non-bank deposit takers, disclosure rules for banks) and as I’ve argued here before the Reserve Bank still has too much discretionary policymaking power over banks (LVR limits, with significant distributional consequences are a good example –  and one Tucker seems to have quite a lot of reservations about).  As I read him, he would favour delegating more policy power to the central bank in the supervisory/regulatory area.  Personally, I think there is a good case for giving the regulator less power, and for a clearer delineation between setting the rules of the game (politicians) and implementing them (independent agency).  And keeping the functions in separate institutions will make for stronger effective accountability –  a key theme of Tucker’s –  than two or three committees with the Governor and his Deputy sitting on all of them.  You can only fire – or not reappoint –  a Governor once.

One of reasons Tucker worries about differing degrees of independence is that it would not ‘be conducive to successful institution-building’, citing the way in which the Greenspn Fed looked down on supervisors as a “lower form of life”.   Again, I’m not sure I fully buy the argument –  it is more about the priorities and beliefs of the people at the top than about formal statutory remits –  but as both Geof Mortlock and I have argued in the New Zealand context, standalone agencies helps enable the creation of cultures of excellence in both institutions.   And even Tucker recognises that culture is one of the challenges to a multi-function central bank, even if both functions have equal statutory importance.

In many cases, these aren’t open and shut issues.  There are different models around the world, although on my reading in most advanced countries –  and especially most small ones –  structural separation is the route chosen.  It is far from obvious that the new British model is better than the old (only the next crisis is likely to test that), even if appropriately some issues have been clarified and powers refined out of the 2008/09 experience.  But in the New Zealand context, most of the arguments now line up pretty clearly in favour of structural separation, and the creation of a new standalone prudential regulatory agency, with powers, personnel, and governance/accountability structures specifically fit for purposes, rather than shoehorned into an institution designed primarily for a monetary policy role.

 

Split the Reserve Bank in two

In the last few months, I’ve run a couple of posts making the case for splitting the prudential regulatory/supervisory functions of the Reserve Bank out into a standalone prudential regulatory agency.  The main post was here, with some follow-up comments here.  The case for structural reform has been further strengthened, in my view, by the results of the recent New Zealand Initiative survey on regulated entities, in which it is clear that most respondents have little or no respect or regard for the Reserve Bank in its supervisory roles (as distinct from the inevitable disagreements with a regulator that should be expected/encouraged).   There are good arguments in principle for structural separation, and there is no sign (say) that despite those in-principle arguments the Reserve Bank has been doing a superlative job anyway.

As I noted in the earlier post, in most OECD countries (outside the euro-area, where central banks no longer have a monetary policy job to do), banking regulation and supervision is done by a body other than the central bank.

But if we look at advanced countries that do have their own monetary policies, I could find only three others –  Czech Republic, Israel, and the United Kingdom –  in which the same agency is responsible for monetary policy as for prudential supervision.   The US is –  in this area as so many –  a curious hybrid system, in which the Federal Reserve has some –  but not remotely all – responsibility for prudential supervision.  But as far as I could tell, the following OECD countries have monetary policy and prudential supervision conducted by separate agencies:

Canada, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Korea, Japan, Poland, Chile, Turkey, Mexico, Switzerland, and Iceland

I’m not sure that Turkey or Mexico offer models of governance for New Zealand, but the presence on that list of small well-governed countries like Norway, Sweden and Switzerland –  as well as tiny Iceland –   gave me pause for thought.

Perhaps of most direct relevance to us in Australia’s place in that list.

Some others have also made the case for structural separation, including my former colleague Geof Mortlock.  Geof has a new substantive column out today forcefully making the case for change.   Geof and I have been disagreeing about things for 35 years since we started at the Bank in adjoining offices a couple of weeks apart.  He spent most of his Reserve Bank career in the regulatory side of the Bank and for the last decade or so has been a consultant on banking risk/regulatory issues, including a stint at the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority.      Judging by the occasional emails we exchange and occasional comments here, I suspect we still don’t agree about very much –  quite probably including the substance and extent of financial system regulation and supervision.

But I agree with almost everything in his column today. I encourage you to read it, and I hope that Treasury officials working on Reserve Bank reforms and the Minister of Finance (and his associates) not only read it, but heed it.  It is an overdue change, and if the chance for reform isn’t grasped now the issue is likely to drift for another decade or two, with weak governance, weak accountability, and a regulatory body that is unlikely to command the respect it should earn whether from regulated entities, overseas supervisors or (most importantly) the New Zealand public.

Here is Geof’s list of the main reasons for change

  • It would reduce the concentration of excessive power in one government agency. Currently, the Reserve Bank has a very wide range of powers compared to most central banks in the OECD. It has responsibility for monetary policy, foreign exchange reserves management, currency intervention, operating significant parts of the payment system and securities settlement system, prudential regulation of banks, insurers and NBDTs, regulation of money laundering, regulation of the payment system, financial stability oversight, macro-prudential regulation and currency management. I will stop there. The sentence is already too long!  So is the range of functions under one agency. This concentrates excessive power in the Reserve Bank. It also creates potential and actual conflicts of interest, as I argue later in this article. A narrower span of functions would reduce this concentration of power and avoid conflicts of interest.
  • Removing regulatory functions from the Reserve Bank would enable the supervisory agency to focus on the job at hand without being distracted by the other central bank tasks, particularly monetary policy. ………the Reserve Bank has tended over the years to accord much greater emphasis, attention, management oversight, resourcing and public reporting to the monetary policy function than to its regulatory responsibilities. The Reserve Bank Board, likewise, has generally paid much greater attention to the monetary policy function than to financial sector regulation. (That said, the Board has performed very poorly in all of its monitoring roles. Sadly, it has been little more than a compliant rubber stamp and cheer leader for senior management).
  • Separation of the regulatory functions would also enable the Reserve Bank to focus on its core role of monetary policy and related functions, undistracted by the many regulatory issues which it currently oversees. This would likely be conducive to a more focused and effective central bank. It would help the central bank to lift its game in monetary policy – i.e. to keep inflation broadly around the mid-point of the inflation target range; something that it has consistently failed to achieve in recent years.
  • Separation of the regulatory functions would enable a senior management team to be appointed with the skills, knowledge and experience to perform the role effectively – i.e. people with deep knowledge of, and practical experience in, banking, insurance and financial regulatory issues. The current senior management team – and its predecessors – generally lack the skills, knowledge and experience required for the role.  …..
  • It would enable the regulatory agency to build the depth of knowledge and skills in its staff to perform the functions required of them. Currently, although the Reserve Bank has able people in the supervisory area, it lacks the depth and breadth of knowledge and industry experience to do the job as effectively as it should. ……

He adds a couple of other considerations that resonated with me

  • Separation of the supervisory function from the Reserve Bank would also remove potential conflicts of interest between the Bank’s functions. For example, there is a conflict of interest between the Reserve Bank’s role as owner and operator of core parts of the payment and settlement systems [notably the NZClear securities settlement system], and its supervisory responsibilities in these areas. It is rather like the referee of a rugby game also being an active player on the field. Even worse, this referee gets to write the rules of the game!
  • It would ensure that macro-prudential supervision policy is directed at the promotion of financial system stability rather than being used as a de facto monetary policy instrument or for other nefarious purposes that do not necessarily anchor to financial stability. Reflecting this, I very much doubt that, had the responsibility for macro-prudential policy been allocated to a separate prudential regulator, and not the Reserve Bank, the macro-prudential policy tools would have been used as aggressively and relatively clumsily as has been the case under the Bank.

I’m hopeful more than convinced of the argument in that final sentence.

Of course, structural separation is no panacea.  A new agency would need to be built from scratch, even if it took over the existing Reserve Bank staff.  It isn’t as if the field of suitable candidates to lead such an agency is thick on the ground, and building the sort of expertise and culture that the job requires will be the work of several years.  But, on the one hand, we face that challenge anyway: the Governor can’t simply ignore, or pay only lip-service to, the shocking feedback in the NZ Initiative survey.  And, on the other hand, if we don’t make a start –  and put in place structural preconditions that increase the chances of better institutions in the longer-term – things are unlikely to ever reach the standard they should.

It remains disconcerting that the second stage of the Reserve Bank Act review is being led jointly by the Reserve Bank and the Treasury, in a climate in which the Minister of Finance has shown little interest in these sorts of issues.  The situation is crying out for leadership from the government, and not allowing the existing Reserve Bank management to persuade the Minister to settle for something as little different as possible from the inadequate status quo.

(Geof’s comment on the severe weaknesses of the Reserve Bank Board echo my own over the years.  Neither their Annual Reports nor the minutes of their meetings record any dissatisfaction with management ever – even though their primary role is holding the Bank to account, and the Bank is made up of fallible human beings.    I wrote a few weeks ago about the “Charter” (really a code of conduct) the Board has devised for itself.  The “charter” talks of the Board’s right to advise the Governor, and asserts a right to be heard

The Board may advise the Governor on any matter relating to the performance of the Bank’s functions and the exercise of its powers. The Governor is not required to act on the Board’s advice, but is required to have regard to it.

Where advice relates to matters of significance, the Board may give that advice to the Governor in writing, having first discussed the matter with the Governor in a Board meeting.

The Board will maintain a record of any formal Board advice given to the Governor.

There was no record in the minutes over the last couple of years of any material oral advice (despite (a) legal requirements to maintain records of public affairs, and (b) some difficult issues, including –  for example –  the Toplis affair).  So I lodged an OIA request seeking copies of any written advice.

There was none of course. In fact, the Board chair went so far as to claim that this was a mark of the effectiveness of the Board.   I think he must have left off an “in”.    Geof’s term –  and I think I’ve used it before too –  was cheerleaders.  But hopeless at almost anything else, and useless to the citizenry. )

The Governor on banking and deposit insurance

There was another interview the other day with new Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr.  This one, on interest.co.nz, focused on issues somewhat connected to the Reserve Bank’s responsibility for financial sector prudential regulation/supervision, and associated failure management responsibilities.

In the interview Orr touched again on an idea he has already alluded to in one of his interviews: the idea of getting a clearer, more quantified, sense from Parliament as to what it is looking for from the Reserve Bank in its conduct of regulatory policy.

It is an appealing idea in principle.  For monetary policy, Parliament has specified a goal of price stability, and in the Policy Targets Agreement the (elected) Minister of Finance gives that operational form (a focus on 2 per cent annual inflation, within a range of 1 to 3 per cent).   There is nothing similar for the extensive regulatory powers the Bank has.

In respect of banks, section 68 of the Act sets out the goals

68 Exercise of powers under this Part

The powers conferred on the Governor-General, the Minister, and the Bank by this Part shall be exercised for the purposes of—

(a)  promoting the maintenance of a sound and efficient financial system; or

(b)  avoiding significant damage to the financial system that could result from the failure of a registered bank.

Which is fine as far as it goes –  and what isn’t there (eg a depositor protection mandate) is often as important as what is.   But it isn’t very specific, and provides no guidance as to how to interpret the idea of an “efficient” financial system (as a result, it has been debated internally for decades), no sense of how sound the system should be (or even what a “sound system”, as distinct from sound institutions, might be.   And the same overarching provision (sec 68) has seen the Reserve Bank’s approach to bank regulation and supervision change very substantially over the years, with little or no involvement from Parliament.

There is a reasonable argument –  made quite forcefully in former Bank of England Deputy Governor Paul Tucker’s new book on such matters – that if in a particular aspect society’s preferences aren’t reasonably stable, and able to be written down reasonably well, then policymaking powers in that area should not be delegated to an independent agency (let alone what is formally a one-man agency).  With the second stage of the review of the Reserve Bank Act underway, Orr can obviously see a threat to the Bank’s powers, and thus he suggests an attempt be made to have Parliament articulate its preferences, and views on possible trade-offs, more directly.  If they could do so, having unelected decisionmakers then working to deliver on that mandate might be less democratically objectionable, and the Reserve Bank might have a greater degree of legitimacy in these areas than it does now.

And so the Governor told his interviewer

“For inflation targeting we’ve got a clear target [being] 1% to 3% on average. For the prudential regulation, – how do we articulate that target? In other words what is the risk appetite of the people of New Zealand as represented by Members of Parliament for banking regulation? Do you screw it down to one corner where nothing can happen – it’s very sounds but totally inefficient, or do you have trade-offs allowing firms to come and go and consumers to be aware etc? So that is going to be a really good, useful articulation that will come out of that,” says Orr.

At first blush it sounds promising, and I’m certainly not going to discourage an effort to try to uncover such an articulation of preferences.  But I am a little sceptical that anything very stable or useful will emerge from the process.  I’d prefer that all rule-making powers were removed back to the Minister of Finance (or indeed Parliament), leaving the role of the Reserve Bank as (a) technical advisers, and (b) implementers.

It might be fine to express a view that banking system regulation should be designed on a view that there should be no major bank failure on average more than once in a hundred years   – actually about the rate in New Zealand history –  or, indeed, five hundred years.    That might (and has in the past internally) be some help in how one calibrates capital requirements for banks.  It will, however, be almost no help in deciding whether LVR restrictions are a legitimate use of coercive, redistributive, government powers.  Or whether we care much about small institutions.  Or, indeed, whether the Reserve Bank should have the power to approve (or not)  the appointment of senior staff in banks.   And even if society could express a stable preference for a regime designed to deliver no more than one failure per 100 years, it provides very little basis for that other vital strand of the governance of independent agencies –  serious accountability.    Good luck could readily deliver a 50 year run of no failures without reflecting any great actual credit on the central bankers in charge at the time (who might have been doing fine, or doing a lousy job).  And if the one in a hundred year shock happens next year, it will still be very difficult to say with any certainty that the central bankers were doing the job they were asked to do –  they may well have been, and just got unlucky, and the public is likely to want scapegoats.    Elected politicians serve that role better than unelected technocrats.

But if there is anything more to the idea the Governor is toying with, it would be good to get some material into the public domain in due course, and have it scrutinised or debated.

In his latest interview, the Governor also touched again on the calls for a royal commission into conduct in the financial sector, as underway at present in Australia.  This time he is a lot more moderate, explicitly recognising that it isn’t his call.

Against the backdrop of the unacceptable conduct coming to light in Australia’s Royal Commission on financial services, Orr doesn’t believe New Zealand needs its own Royal Commission. However, he says the impact of the Australian one is certainly being felt in NZ.

“There will be not a single bank in New Zealand that is not, at the moment, really checking every cupboard for skeletons here in New Zealand. That is without doubt. This has really put the wind up the banks to say ‘hey, what is the alternative to sound regulation, it’s a Royal Commission’. We’re meeting collectively with the CEOs, we’re meeting individually with the chairs, and we always do on a regular basis,” Orr says.

“Is a Royal Commission necessary? At the moment in my personal opinion no, but I’m not the one who would call one anyway.”

Orr says while the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority is “being held up as some [sort of] global best practice,” and works alongside the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and the Reserve Bank of Australia with all having “heavy boots on the ground,” they’re still having “this cultural challenge.” Thus more hands-on regulation than the Reserve Bank’s light touch regulatory oversight of banks isn’t necessarily the best way forward.

But it is an odd mix of responses.  On the one hand, Orr seems to come across as something of a champion or defender of the banks in New Zealand.  That is no part of his role.  He is the prudential (soundness) regulator, in the public interest –  recall section 68 of the Act, quoted earlier – and his role (the Reserve Bank’s role) has almost nothing to do with conduct standards.

And he seems to be attempting distraction on other issues by conflating prudential/systemic issues with conduct issues.  Thus, when various people (including the IMF) have argued that New Zealand should adopt a prudential regulatory regime more akin to APRA’s (which, in effect, operates here to a considerable extent anyway, because APRA is focused on the entire Australian banking groups), Orr doesn’t engage in the substance of that debate, but attempts to muddy the water by making the point that a more intensive prudential regime in Australia hasn’t prevented some of the conduct issues coming to light in the Royal Commission.  Indeed, but why would one imagine it should?   They are two quite different issues.  In the same way, an investigation into whether the local supermarket was meeting minimum wage or holiday pay provisions for its staff wouldn’t expect to shed any light on food-handling issues in the same supermarket.

Part of the legitimacy of independent central banks involves them being seen to speak in an authoritative and trustworthy way.

But the comment from the Governor that led me to read the account of the interview was on the vexed subject of deposit insurance.   The article had this as (part of) its headline

RBNZ Governor says differences between deposit insurance & minimum deposit not frozen in OBR scenario are ‘technicalities’

That sounded like an intriguing claim.  You’ll recall that the Reserve Bank has long staunchly opposed deposit insurance (eg articles/speeches referenced here), even though people like The Treasury, the IMF, and various other commentators (including me and my former RB colleague Geof Mortlock) favour it.  The new Governor doesn’t seem to share the Bank’s long-running opposition.

Asked whether the Reserve Bank should get an explicit statutory objective to protect bank depositors and/or insurance policyholders, Orr says deposit protection, or deposit insurance, is “something that’s going to be here in the future.” NZ’s currently an outlier among OCED countries in not having explicit deposit insurance.

“I think that’s something that’s going to be here in the future. We need to work our way through what it means

I’m surprised that change of stance didn’t get more coverage.  Of course, whether or not we have deposit insurance isn’t a decision for the Reserve Bank; it is a matter for the government and Parliament.  Nonetheless, if the Reserve Bank Governor is going to withdraw the bank’s opposition, that removes a significant bureaucratic roadblock.  Well done, Governor.    (To be clear, I favour deposit insurance not as a first-best outcome, but as a second-best that makes it more likely that future governments will allow troubled financial institutions to fail, rather than bail out all the creditors.)

But it was the Governor’s next comments on the issue that were more troubling, and which suggest he hasn’t yet got sufficiently to grips with the issue before opening his mouth.

I think people have been talking across each other a lot,” Orr says.

“The bank here has got a policy called Open Bank Resolution. And that is the idea that if a bank is too large to fail, we have to keep it open. But we have to recapitalise. So the current owners or investors who have largely done their dough, how do you recapitalise it and how do you have the door open the next day?”

“As part of that open bank resolution, we’ve already said there can be a de minimis around depositors money that they will have access to. We just need to speak in better English to say ‘you know you are going to have some cash there, you are going to be able to get your sandwiches, meet your bills, do all of that on the Monday. Because if it didn’t happen that way, then that one bank failure creates all banks to fail, there’s [bank] runs everywhere’,” adds Orr.

When it was put to him that depositors having access to a de minimis sum if open bank resolution was implemented on their bank isn’t the same as explicit deposit insurance, Orr suggested the difference is merely technical.

“We could have a discussion through that legislation to say ‘economically it’s the same, could we call it the same, or is it part of a failure management?’ I believe it’s the same end outcome, the technicalities behind it are just technicalities. We need to be able to say to the public ‘if we’re shutting the bank down, what do you have access to, what is the guaranteed de minimis or minimum, or protection,’ and then we need to work out how is that going to be funded.”

There is a lot of mixed-up stuff in there.

For a start, the question of how we manage the failure of a bank in New Zealand has nothing whatever to do with the idea of foreign taxpayers bailing out New Zealand depositors.  I’m not aware that anyone supposed that was very likely.  Indeed, all our planning –  including the requirement for most deposit-taking banks to incorporate locally –  has been based on the idea that New Zealand is on its own (although for the Australian banking groups, whatever happens in the event of failure is likely to be negotiated by politicians from the two countries).   Instead the general issue here is

  • should a large bank simply be allowed to close if it fails, and handled through normal liquidation procedures (few would say yes to that).
  • if not, how best can the bank be kept open,
  • it could be bailed out by the government (benefiting all creditors, including foreign wholesale ones),
  • or the OBR tool could be used, in which all creditors’ claims would be immediately “haircut”, so that the losses fall on shareholders and creditors not on taxpayers but  the bank’s doors remain open.

Within the OBR scheme there has always been the idea of a de minimis amount which might not be haircut at all.  It isn’t an issue about liquidity –  as the Governor suggests –  because in the reopened bank everyone has access to some of their money.  It is an explicitly distributional issue.   For example, a welfare beneficiary might have only $100 in their account (living almost from day to day),  such accounts in total won’t have much money in them, so it might be easier (involve many fewer creditors, and less immediate resort to eg foodbanks) and in some sense fairer just to give people with such small balances immediate access to all their money and not have them share in any losses (or have to bother about ongoing dealings with those handling the failure).  It has mostly been seen as a matter of administrative convenience, but also of realpolitik (reduce the number of voters affected by losses in a failure).   And if these very small creditors are fully paid out, it does involve a transfer of wealth from all other creditors, but the amounts involved, even cumulatively, are pretty small.

In recent years, there has been talk of this de minimis amount creeping up.    There have even been suggestions of something as large as $10000 –  in other words, if you have less than $10000 in your (failed) bank, you wouldn’t face any losses.    It must be this sort of thing the Governor has in mind when he talks of the difference between deposit insurance and the de minimis being little more than “technicalities”.

But he is still wrong:

  • first, the de minimis would only apply where OBR was used, and OBR is only one option.  Even if looks like an attractive option, in some circumstances, for a large bank, it might not be a necessary or appropriate response to the failure of a small bank.
  • second, the de minimis is being paid out of other creditors’ money (it is essentially a (small) depositor preference scheme).   That might be tolerable for very small balances –  other creditors have an interest in lowering administrative costs of managing the OBR –  but is most unlikely to be defensible, or acceptable, for larger de minimis amounts,   Perhaps the Governor has in mind, the government chipping in directly to cover the larger de minimis amounts, but relative to a proper priced deposit insurance regime that seems far inferior, and different by degree, not just by “technicalities”.
  • third, no de minimis amount I’ve ever heard mentioned comes close to the sorts of payout (coverage) limits in typical deposit insurance schemes abroad.  As the author of the interest.co.nz piece points out  “Under Australia’s deposit insurance scheme, deposits are protected up to a limit of A$250,000 for each account-holder at any bank, building society or credit union that’s authorised by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority”.    Attempting to rely on the de minimis –  as people like the Governor sometimes do in advance of the failure –  is just a recipe for increasing the likelihood of a full bailout at point of failure, as the amount envisaged just won’t match public expectations/demands (as revealed in other countries).

To repeat, it is good that the new Governor appears to be shifting ground on deposit insurance.  But let’s not settle for half-baked responses, using a vehicle never designed to deal with the issue of deposit insurance.  Legislate and put in place a proper deposit insurance scheme, and levy depositors to pay for the insurance.

Do that and, as I’ve argued previously, the chances of being able to use OBR –  to impose losses on large and wholesale creditors, including foreign ones – will be materially increased.  Without sorting out deposit insurance properly, most likely any future government faced with a failure of a large bank will just fall back on the tried, true, and costly solution of a full state bailout.