“Whichever is less”

I’ve done a few posts over the last couple of months about the lawfulness of the Minister of Finance’s decision to appoint an acting Governor of the Reserve Bank for six months after the expiry, just a couple of days after the election,  of Graeme Wheeler’s term.  As a reminder, I had several times argued that making a substantive five year appointment, to commence just after the election would be inappropriate –  indeed, as Treasury officials advised, it would also be inconsistent with the long-established conventions that govern behaviour in the period close to a general election.  As a further reminder, I have no particular concerns about Grant Spencer; if the appointment is lawful I’m sure he will mind the store capably until a permanent appointment is made by the incoming government.

This post was written on the day the acting appointment was announced, this one following responses to my OIA requests for information relevant to the appointment, and this one from last week on an appeal to the Ombudsman, on the grounds that the public interest (including because of the extent of the powers that rests with any appointee) should lead to the release of any legal advice the Minister, the Board, and officials received on the legality of the appointment.

And there I would have left it, with perhaps a repeat post the day Spencer took office.  My main concerns were about (a) the lack of transparency about an unusual appointment (even if it is lawful), and (b) about the importance of laws being followed, even if the legally questionable appointment was, on the face of it, quite a pragmatic response to the clash of dates (election, and end of Governor’s term).   But they weren’t necessarily points of general interest.

But then a reader got in touch.  The reader wasn’t sure, reading the legislation, whether or not Spencer’s appointment looked lawful, but pointed out that the Reserve Bank Act vests all the powers of the Bank in the Governor personally.  Thus, if there were doubts about the validity of the appointment of a Governor (or in this case an acting Governor), that would appear to raise doubts about the validiity, and potential enforceability, of any actions taken by the Bank during the term of the acting Governor.  That got my attention.

After all, the Governor wields a great deal of power.  He sets the OCR, he sets much of prudential regulatory policy, he authorises enforcement actions against regulated entities, and the Bank –  under his authority –  undertakes large volumes (and values) of financial transactions in domestic and international financial markets.  All delegations to staff are delegations directly from the Governor.   And those are just the routine activities of the Bank.  But a big part of why we have a Reserve Bank is about crisis management –  whether in foreign exchange markets, the economy more generally, or some or all parts of the financial system.   Many of the crisis powers rest with the Minister of Finance.   But many of the operational bits rest with the Bank, in which, as already noted, all powers are vested in the Governor.  That is what a single decisionmaker structure means.  It was a deliberate and conscious choice by Parliament.   Of course, in any particular six month period –  the term of the acting Governor – one hopes the crisis management powers aren’t needed at all.  But crises can flare up quickly, and the last thing one wants is doubts about the powers of the Bank, or the authority of those purporting to exercise such powers, in the middle of a crisis.  Let alone legal action afterwards seeking to invalidate some or all interventions by our central bank.

So I want to go slowly and carefully through the reasons why I think

a) it is not lawful for the Minister of Finance to appoint an acting Governor when the full term of a previous Governor has expired, and

b) why any defects in the appointment of a Governor/acting Governor appear to raise serious doubts about the validity and enforceability of any actions take by the Reserve Bank during the term of any acting Governor.

And I will suggest two possible practical solutions.

The Reserve Bank Act clearly allows for an acting Governor in some circumstances.

Section 47 of the Act allows for the case where the Governor is absent or incapacitated.   If the Governor is on holiday, or indeed seriously ill, the deputy chief executive can act automatically.  But if both the Governor and the deputy chief executive are absent or incapacitated, an acting Governor must be appointed by the Minister on the recommendation of the Board.    There is no limit to the term of such an appointment, although by implication –  since it is to cover an absence of an appointed Governor –  it could last no longer than the expiry of the Governor’s own term.    This section of the Act has never been used, and is not relevant to the current appointment.

Section 48 of the Act covers a vacancy in the office of Governor.    The key bits read as follows

If the office of Governor becomes vacant, the Minister shall, on the recommendation of the Board, appoint….[a person] to act as Governor for a period not exceeding 6 months or for the remainder of the Governor’s term, whichever is less.

The critical phrase here appears to be “whichever is less”.      When Don Brash resigned as Governor in April 2002, there was about sixteen months to run on his term.  The then Minister appointed Rod Carr to act as Governor.    He could be appointed for as long as six months, because there was still sixteen months to run on “the Governor’s term”.  By contrast, on 26 September this year there will be no days left on the Governor’s term.  Graeme Wheeler’s term will have expired at midnight the previous day.   So an acting Governor can only be appointed for…….. zero days, since there are no days left on “the Governor’s term”.  In other words, the Act simply does not appear to allow an acting Governor appointment along the lines of the (purported) Spencer appointment.

This is all consistent with the fact that the Act makes no provision for a Policy Targets Agreement with an acting Governor (it isn’t needed within a Governor’s term, since there is already a PTA in place), even though the PTA is central to the monetary policy parts of the Act,  and that the Act requires all new appointments of a Governor to begin with a five year term.   The Minister and the Board can’t just appoint someone for a succession of short terms –  no matter how well-intentioned the reason –  and thus compromise the effective independence of that person.

It is also, perhaps, worth noting that the previous (1964) Reserve Bank Act –  the one in place when the policy and drafting decisions on the current law were being made  –  also made no provision for the appointment of an acting Governor after the completion of a Governor’s term  (section 18 here ).  Under that legislation there could be an acting Governor only during the term of an appointed Governor (if the Governor and Deputy Governor were absent or incapacitated).  And Governors had to be appointed for five year terms.

In other words, the drafting looks conscious and deliberate.   The 1989 Act explicitly added provisions allowing for an acting Governor when the Governor resigned or died, leaving a vacancy during his term.  But the Bank’s legislation has never, in at least 50 years, allowed for an acting Governor to be appointed to commence after the end of the previous Governor’s term.  But that is what the Minister of Finance, on the recommendation of the Reserve Bank Board, purports to have done (the Minister having received no advice from the Board on the legality of such an appointment).

Does it all matter?    Sometimes laws contain provisions stating that any problems in the appointment of an officeholder, or doubts about the validity of the appointment, don’t affect the validity of enforceability of the actions/decisions taken by that person.

In fact, the Reserve Bank Act has one of those provisions.    For the Board.  Under section 54(4)

The validity of any act of the Board is not affected by—

(a) any vacancy in its membership; or
(b) any defect in the appointment of a director; or
(c) the fact that any non-executive director is disqualified from appointment under section 58.

But there is simply nothing comparable for the Governor.

Curiously, there is protection for the Deputy Chief Executive when exercising delegated authority from the Governor.   Under section 51

The fact that the Deputy Chief Executive exercises any powers or functions of the Governor shall be conclusive proof of the authority to do so, and no person shall be concerned to inquire whether the occasion for doing so has arisen or has ceased.

But there is nothing like it for the Governor, or any acting Governor.  There is simply a requirement on the Board and the Minister to make a proper appointment, and to have that person in place once the previous Governor’s term ends (and presumably an expectation that Governor appointments are sufficiently high profile, and as all powers of the Bank rest with the Governor, no questions should ever arise about the authority of the Governor him or her self to make decisions.

(Again, it is perhaps worth noting that there are also no such protections in the 1964 Act – the one in place when the 1989 Act was being drafted.  The drafters presumably made conscious choices about what to add and what not to.)

Perhaps some legal expert has an authoritative interpretation of these statutory provisions suggesting that

  • an appointment like that of Spencer is legal, and
  • even if there are any doubts, nonetheless there would be no basis to question the legality of the actions of the Bank during his term as “acting Governor”.

If so, surely they now owe it to us to release that advice, or even a summary of the argumentation that led the Minister to conclude that, under the existing statutory provisions, he could appoint Spencer as acting Governor.  Failure to do so appears to leave real doubt about the authority for any actions the Bank takes, or purports to take, during Spencer’s term.     It isn’t a remotely satisfactory situation for such a powerful agency, especially when –  since many routine decisions could simply be deferred –  a big part of the Bank’s responsibility is crisis management.  That uncertainty should unsettle financial market participants here and abroad, it should unsettle Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee (charged with monitioring the Bank), it should unsettle entities regulated by the Bank, and –  given the pervasive reach of many of the Bank’s powers –  it should unsettle citizens more generally.  It simply isn’t a satisfactory situation.

But it is a relatively easily remediable one.    The first option would have been simply to have offered Graeme Wheeler a six month extension on his term.  There are no restrictions on the term of any reappointment of the Governor.  It is a common way to deal with difficulties –  whether logistic or political/constitutional –  in appointing a new chief executive.     Had this option been taken there would have been no doubts about the invalidity of any of the Bank’s actions during that term.   We don’t know whether the Board/Minister refused to countenance another six months of Wheeler, or whether Wheeler simply wanted to be out as sooon as possible.  Given the legislative restrictions, and the election-related constraints, neither would –  on the face of it – seem to have been a particular responsible, public-spirited stance.  Presumably the Wheeler extension option is no longer available, but if it is it should be revisited urgently.

The second option would be for Parliament to act.  With the agreement of the Opposition parties it would be easy and quick to pass a single substantive clause amendment allowing for the appointment of an acting Governor to cover the period 26 September 2017 to 25 March 2018 (the period envisaged for the Spencer acting appointment).   In this case, the acting appointment is a pragmatic solution, but done without legal authority.  So don’t rush to change the legislation permanently –  it looks likely to be back in the House next year whoever wins the election –  but the acting “appointment” itself could easily be validated. It might be a little embarrasing to do so, but it would be a one day wonder, and a small price to avoid any doubts about Bank actions during the acting Governor period.

Of course, the other way would be to appoint Spencer to a five year term as Governor, on the implied expectation that he would resign after six months.   But that is how we got into this situation in the first place.  The conventions around election periods strongly discourage making substantive appointments to powerful public offices, when the appointee would take up the position close to, or shortly after, a forthcoming election.

(This is one of those issues on which I would really like to be wrong.   But I’m increasingly uncomfortable that an error was made by the Minister of Finance and the Bank’s Board.)

Bits and pieces

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

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

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

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

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

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



Possible Reserve Bank reforms: some reactions

Some of the media reaction to talk –  from both the government and the Labour Party –  of possible changes to the Reserve Bank Act  has been a bit surprising.  One leading journalist behind a paywall summed up both the review Steven Joyce has requested and Labour’s proposals as “utter balderdash”, apparently just because there are more important issues politicians should be addressing.  No doubt there are –  housing, the languishing tradables sector, non-existent productivity growth and so on –  but competent governments, backed by a large public service, can usually manage more than one thing at a time.    And although there are plenty of details to debate on Reserve Bank governance, they aren’t exactly divisive ideological issues.   A parliamentary under-secretary or Associate Minister handled most of the details of the 1989 Reserve Bank Act, in a government that did a great deal of other (often more important) stuff.

Bernard Hickey’s story on the government’s review and Labour’s proposals is headed Monetary Policy Reforms a Mirage.     That could be so.  If National is re-elected, they might advance no governance reforms.  Or they might just legislate for something very like the sort of internal committee that, in various shapes and forms, has been the forum in which the Governor made OCR decisions ever since the OCR was introduced.  But apparently at his post-Cabinet press conference, the Prime Minister –  who had rejected earlier Treasury advice in this area in 2012 –  opened up the possibility of a committee not just composed of insiders.

Meanwhile, English hinted Treasury might look at whether a rate-setting committee could include non-Reserve Bank personal. That would be a matter for the review, he said.

Beginning a process of discussing reform options tends to put a range of issues and options on the table.

The sort of decision-making and governance reforms being advanced by Labour and the Greens would be most unlikely to be “simply a mirage”.     There are number of concerns that what Labour is proposing does not go far enough, but again they are probably best seen as the starting point for a more detailed review if/when Labour and the Greens take office.  There is a risk that it could all come to not very much.   After all, even over the last 15 years the Reserve Bank has had a couple of Governor-appointed outsiders involved in the advice and decisionmaking process –  the Prime Minister’s brother is one of them at present –  and that hasn’t made much difference at all.  And requirements to publish minutes/votes can be subverted too.      But that it is why the appointment of the new Governor is so important.  If Labour and Greens are serious about reforming the way the Reserve Bank operates,  then if they become government they need to move quickly to find a person (perhaps a top team) they have confidence in, to work with The Treasury and the government to implement legislative reforms, and to lead the internal process changes to make the new, more open, vision a reality.    If they are serious about greater openness, they need to ensure they have a Governor who shares that reforming vision.   Such a Governor could make a considerable difference even if, for example, the new Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) were to have a majority of executive members.

In some ways, much the same goes for the, less substantively important, proposal to add some sort of full employment aspiration/objective to the statutory goal for monetary policy.    I’ve described it as virtue-signalling, but on reflection that might be slightly unfair.  In the narrow context of the Reserve Bank Act, it is probably about right –  if the Bank has had things a bit tight over the last few years, leaving unemployment higher than it needed to be, then often enough over the life of the Act, the unemployment rate has been below the NAIRU.   Changing the words of section 8 of the Act in isolation won’t make much difference. After all, Australia and the United States have wording Labour prefers, and yet the cyclical behaviour of their economies hasn’t, on average over time, been much different from New Zealand’s.

So I’m sure there is a bit of pure product-differentiation about Labour’s proposal in this regard.  That isn’t unusual. Most changes to the Policy Targets Agreements over the years –  from both sides of politics –  have been more about product differentiation than substance, about scratching itches rather than making much difference to how monetary policy is actually run.  For Labour there is probably is some perceived need to differentiate, and a desire to campaign (and govern?) on a whole-of-government commitment to promoting and facilitating full employment.   That is an unquestionably worthy goal.    If monetary policy choices aren’t going to make very much difference to the medium or long-term rate of unemployment, they can (and have) made quite a difference in the shorter term.  So one way of telling Labour’s story is that they want the word to get out to the public that they are committed to (medium-term) full employment, and they want the public to know that the Bank isn’t in any sense an obstacle to that, and to hear the Bank talking of the importance of the issue.  These are real people’s lives.   I noted yesterday

So the problem typically hasn’t been that the Reserve Bank doesn’t care about unemployment –  although they don’t mention it often, and there is little sense in their rhetoric of visceral horror at waste of lives and resources when unemployment is higher than it needs to be.

They probably should be talking about it more, with conviction.  The legitimacy of independent public agencies depends on part of people believing that those entities have the public interest at heart.  And everyone knows –  central banks acknowledge –  that in the shorter-term their choices do have (sometimes painful) implications for the numbers of people unemployed in New Zealand.  At a bloodless technocratic level, I’ve suggested Labour could amend the Act to require the Bank to regularly report on its estimate of the NAIRU, and how monetary policy is affecting the gap between the actual unemployment rate and the NAIRU.  But this isn’t just a bloodless technocratic concern.

So again, getting the right Governor matters –  someone who will talk convincingly and engagingly as if what they are about affects ordinary people, including those at the margins (vulnerable to unemployment and the resulting dislocation to their lives).

So, from the perspective of both strands of the Labour reform proposal, my concrete suggestion to them is that if they lead a new government after the election, they should quickly pass a one (substantive) clause amendment to the Reserve Bank Act.

Section 40 of the Act at present reads

40 Governor

(1) There shall be a Governor of the Bank who shall be appointed by the Minister on the recommendation of the Board.

(2) The Governor shall be the Chief Executive of the Bank.

Simply deleting “on the recommendation of the Board” would make our practice much more consistent with that in most other countries.  It would remove the controlling influence of a Board appointed entirely by the previous government, and it would allow Labour to have in place to lead the rest of their Reserve Bank reforms, someone of their choosing, someone in whom they have confidence.  That is how other advanced democracies do things.  It isn’t about appointing party hacks –  it is how Janet Yellen, Mark Carney, Ben Bernanke, Glenn Stevens and Phil Lowe were all appointed; capable people who commanded the confidence of the government that appointed them.

(Although it isn’t a priority for me, making this change might actually strengthen the effectiveness of the Bank’s Board in holding the Governor to account.  At present, when the Board (in effect) appoints the Governor they have a strong interest in backing their own judgement, and providing cover for the Governor.   If they were responsible for monitoring the performance of a Governor directly appointed by the Minister, they’d have less vested interest in the individual, and perhaps be more ready to represent the interests of the Minister and of the public).

As I was finishing this post, I noticed a highly critical article on interest.co.nz by Alex Tarrant.  Although he isn’t quoted, it reads in part as if Tarrant has been interviewing his father, Arthur Grimes, one of the designers of the current Reserve Bank Act monetary policy provisions, and former chair of the Reserve Bank Board.   There is a lengthy discussion of time-inconsistency issues –  a regular theme of Grimes’s.    I’m not going to attempt to respond in any detail now, but would just observe that whatever the explanations for the rise of inflation in the 60s and 70s (and I’m not persuaded by the story Tarrant quotes), what Labour seems to be proposing is something not far removed from the sorts of formal wording, and policy rhetoric, routinely used at the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Federal Reserve.  One can debate whether it makes much sense to use such langugage, or whether the formal statutory provisions in those countries make much difference, but it is hard for any detached observer to suggest credibly that the Reserve Bank of Australia or the Federal Reserve have suffered greater difficulties with credibility, or with the willingness of the public and markets to take their words seriously, than the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has faced with the current section 8 wording.   If anything, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has had rather more problems –  odd experiments like the MCI, and two quickly-reversed tightening cycles in the last decade –  even if those particular mistakes and problems don’t have their roots in the wording of section 8.  And unlike other inflation targeting countries, there has never been an election since the Act was introduced in which some party or other (and not just the remnants of Social Credit) has not been campaigning for changes to the Reserve Bank Act or the PTA.  You don’t find anything like it in other inflation targeting countries.

Joyce requests review of Reserve Bank governance structure

Some will have seen Hamish Rutherford’s Stuff article reporting on the review the Minister of Finance has commissioned (to be undertaken by former State Services Commissioner, and former Treasury deputy secretary  responsible for macroeconomics,) Iain Rennie) on two aspects of Reserve Bank governance:

  • whether something like the existing internal committee in which the Governor makes his OCR decisions should be formalised in legislation, and
  • whether the Reserve Bank should remain the “owner” of the various pieces of legislation (RB Act, as well as the insurance and non-bank legislation) it operates under.

This is very welcome news.  As I noted in a post a couple of months ago on governance issues,  Steven Joyce has previously been on-record less averse than some to changing the model.


Who knows if the new Minister of Finance is interested, but flicking through some old posts, I was encouraged to find one from September 2015, reporting an exchange in the House between then Associate Minister of Finance Steven Joyce and the Greens then finance spokesperson Julie Anne Genter.  In response to a question on governance, Joyce responded

Hon STEVEN JOYCE : The suggestion that the member makes, of having a panel of people making the decision, is, I have to say, not the silliest suggestion in monetary policy we have heard from the Greens over the years, and many countries—

A backhanded dig at the Greens at one level, but not an outright dismissal by any means.

And with the Governor confirming that he is leaving in September, and a year now until a permanent new Governor is in place, it is good time to have such a review, so as to be open to the possibility of reform, including in discussion with potential candidates for Governor.   Treasury tried to interest the previous Minister of Finance in legislative reform before Graeme Wheeler was appointed, but were knocked back (even though Treasury had found support for reform from market economists).   Graeme Wheeler also sought to initiate reform –  legislating for his Governning Committee –  in 2013 (although he still keeps all the relevant papers hush-hush), and was also knocked back by the Minister of Finance.  So, I’m encouraged that Steven Joyce has initiated the review.

That said, it is a pretty small step.  Iain Rennie will bring some relevant background to the issue, although his track record as State Services Commissioner might not command much confidence in circles other than those who appointed him.  And the Minister of Finance is not committing the National Party to supporting change.  But with almost all other political parties favouring change, and Rennie likely to point out the simple fact that no other New Zealand public sector entity is governed the way the Reserve Bank is (all power formally in one official’s hands), and no other central bank and financial regulatory agency in other advanced countries puts so much power (monetary policy and banking etc regulation) in one person’s hand, it is likely to set in place momentum leading towards some legislative reform next year.

I spoke to Rutherford about this yesterday and am quoted in the article

Michael Reddell, a former special advisor to the Reserve Bank who says he sat on a committee on OCR decisions for 20 years, said formalising the current structure would make only a marginal difference, as the members all reported to the governor.

“If your pay and rations are determined by the governor, then the extent that you’re willing to stand up is questionable, particularly to a tyrannical governor,” Reddell said.

“If the minister [of finance] were appointing the people on the committee, it would be a material step forward.”

All three Governors who have operated under the current legislation have operated pretty collegially.  For a long time, the OCR Advisory Group (OCRAG) was the forum in which the Governor took formal written advice and recommendation, and then made his decision (I was part of that group for a long time).  Mostly his decision was in line with the (usually) clear-cut majorities of advice.  All members of that committee were appointed by the Governor, including two external advisers.   The current Governor has put in another layer of hierarchy, taking advice from a wider group and then making his decision in a smaller group (him, his two deputies and the chief economist).

I should stress that the reference to “tyrannical” Governors was not intended as a reflection on anyone who has served as Governor.    But you need to design institutions around poor or insecure Governors: good ones will want, and will encourage, debate and alternative perspectives.  Poor ones will squash it, and if they control all the members of the statutory committee, it offers little or no protection  –  and actually puts monetary policy decisionmakers at a further remove from the voters and Minister of Finance.   As I’ve argued previously, we need more involvement of the Minister in appointing monetary policy (and financial regulation) decisionmakers, and also need external perspectives brought into the process, in the form of full formal participation in the decisionmaking.  As, for example, it is in Australia, Canada, the UK, the US, Sweden and so on.

Rutherford’s report doesn’t say whether the Rennie review will also look at the formal decisionmaking structure for financial regulation.  Those issues will have to be considered in any legislative reform, and it is probably more important to get collective and external decisionmaking processes formalised, since in these areas the Bank does not operate to something like the PTA, but rather exercises huge amounts of barely-fettered discretion.

The second half of the review –  looking at whether the Bank should stay responsible for its legislation – is not one of the (long list) of reform issues I’ve focused on.  It will probably have many people at the Reserve Bank spitting tacks, and looking at all sorts of bureaucratic tactics to retain something as close as possible to the status quo.  I favour change (but will openly acknowledge that until perhaps the last five years I had the same insider hubris that affects many RBers –  a belief that “we are different” and no one else in positioned to do the legislation-ownership role well).  That is simply wrong –  and if the expertise isn’t there right now, it could be developed over time (probably in Treasury) without too much difficulty.  Again, it would bring the Reserve Bank into line with other Crown entity types of bodies, few (if any) of which are now responsible for their own legislation (altho in years gone by some important ones –  eg ACC – were).  It might seem to many readers like an “inside the Beltway” issues, that doesn’t really matter to citizens.  That would be a mistaken view.  Reform in this area is just one part of the overall agenda to improve the accountability of the now very-powerful Reserve Bank, and bring its goverance more into line with that for other Crown agencies, and with central banks and financial regulatory agencies abroad.

And so for the second time this week, I commend Steven Joyce.  It is only an unambitious start, but the start matters.







Appointing an Acting Governor: what the documents show

I had an email the other day suggesting that I should reduce my coverage of Reserve Bank issues.  No doubt the topic isn’t that interesting to that particular reader, but the main criterion for coverage here is what I’m interested in, and as I noted in response I’m interested in Reserve Bank issues, know something about them, and am fortunate to be much less constrained in what I can say than many other economists (often employed by entities the Reserve Bank regulates).   (As it happens, for any Wellington readers interested in monetary policy issues, I will be speaking briefly as a discussant responding to a presentation by Grant Robertson at Victoria University next Monday lunchtime.)

Which is by way of introducing a post which may not be of great interest to some readers.

For much of the time this blog has been running I had been pointing out, every few months, that the Governor’s term was due to expire almost three years to the day since the last election, and thus any replacement would normally be taking up the role right in the middle of a possible change of government.   As the Governor is the most powerful unelected public official in New Zealand, and there is currently no political consensus on monetary policy and Bank issues, it seemed inappropriate for the current government to be making an appointment to take effect just around the time of the election, materially tying the hands of a possible alternative government.     I’d suggested asking the current Governor, Graeme Wheeler, to stay on for, say, one more year (it was widely understood that Wheeler was not seeking a second full term).     There would have been no doubt about the lawfulness of that option, and had he been offered and accepted such an extension there would have been a new Policy Targets Agreement signed, as the Act provides.  Ever since 1990, the PTA has been the centrepiece of monetary policy arrangements in New Zealand, and the benchmark against which the Governor’s performance is to be assessed.

On 7 February, the Minister of Finance announced that (a) Graeme Wheeler would leave office at the end of his term, and (b) that because of the election the current Deputy Governor Grant Spencer would be appointed acting Governor for six months, allowing a permanent appointment to be made under whichever government takes office after the election.  It was also confirmed that Spencer would not seek appointment as permanent Governor.

In my post that day I welcomed the fact that the Board and the Minister had recognised the significance of the issue around the election, and raised no concerns about Spencer personally (he was my boss for two periods earlier in my career and I always got on well with him).   But I raised questions about whether such an appointment was lawful, under the terms of the Reserve Bank Act.

The Act allows for the appointment of an acting Governor –  and it has been done once before, when Don Brash resigned with immediate effect to go into politics –  but it appeared to provide for such an appointment only to cover a vacancy that arises during a Governor’s term, not to allow the Minister and Board to delay making a substantive appointment at the end of a Governor’s term (such an option would increase potential  political leverage over the Bank).     Consistent with that reading of the law is (a) that the Act makes no provision for agreeing a PTA with an Acting Governor (in a case like that when Rod Carr temporarily replaced Don Brash there was already a PTA is place –  which there will not legally be once Graeme Wheeler leaves office) and (b) that the PTA plays such a central role in the governance provisions around monetary policy (even in the event of a ministerial override of the Bank, a new PTA still needs to be put in place quickly.    But, technically, Grant Spencer will be conducting monetary policy with no PTA, and thus no (formal) checks and balances.

I was curious about (a) how this appointment came to be, and (b) how confident officials and ministers were of their legal ground.  So I lodged OIA requests with the Bank’s Board, with the Minister of Finance, and with the Treasury.   I didn’t really expect them to release the legal advice each agency might have obtained (although the Ombudsman has made clear that legal advice is not always absolutely protected, and (eg) this isn’t a matter of contractural dispute etc) but I assumed that the insights from that advice would be reflected in the policy advice and analysis that officials provided.

The Reserve Bank was about as obstructive as ever.   It took them seven weeks to release a single two paragraph document, the short letter from the Board chair to the Minister recommending the appointment of Spencer as Acting Governor.     There is no mention at all in that letter of the legal issues, not even a specific reference to the provision of the Act governing acting Governor appointments.  Clearly, and perhaps not unexpectedly, a lot else had been going on behind the scenes.

I had asked for

copies of all papers of the Reserve Bank Board relating to the end of Graeme Wheeler’s term as Governor, the process for appointing a permanent replacement, and the appointment of Grant Spencer as acting Governor.   This request includes papers on the Board’s agenda, minutes of relevant discussions, papers/letters sent to the Minister of Finance or Treasury, and filenotes of any relevant meetings.

The Board’s response suggested that the only other relevant material was (a) some advice from the Bank’s Human Resources, and (b) some internal legal advice.

It is simply incredible that there are no minutes of the Board meeting (even if it was just a teleconference) at which they made the recommendation to the Minister of Finance, and highly unlikely (as we shall see) that there are no minutes of earlier discussions, or even email filenotes of discussions that, for example, the Board chair might have had with the Minister of Finance on the forthcoming appointment.    If any of this is written down, it was covered by my request.  And if it is not written down, it might be operationally smart in the short-term (bureaucrats often say to each other, “be careful what you put in writing”) but it is particularly poor governance.  Both the head of the Prime Minister’s Department and the Ombudsman have been explicit that the provisions of the Official Information Act don’t justify taking a slapdash approach to documenting advice, decisions etc.

As I’ve come to expect, there was a much more helpful and fuller response from the Treasury.  It took some time, but there was 63 pages of material.    They haven’t yet put the response on their website – I’ll link to it when they do, and if anyone wants the material sooner just email me.

I won’t bore readers by attempting to step through every paper, but what is clear is how late in the piece the decision was made to go the Acting Governor route, and that credit for that decision goes to the new Minister of Finance Steven Joyce.

The first papers are from August last year.  At that point, Treasury was aware that the expiry of the Governor’s term would fall in the period not far from the likely date of the 2017 election.  They didn’t seem to see the issue as a substantive one, and advised the Secretary to the Treasury that it might just mean that the appointment of a new Governor should be announced quite early (eg May 2017), which  in turn would mean the Board would have to begin the search process relatively early.

A month or so later they were specifically highlighting the convention under which governments are quite restrained in making significant appointments in the three months prior to the election. By this time, it is clear from the documents that the Bank’s Board was already actively planning their search and recommendation process.  Treasury note that it would be desirable to have an appointment announced by the end of May, but to do that a recommendation from the Board would have to be available by early-mid April, but “their current timeframe is to provide a recommendation to the Minister in May”.

By mid November, Treasury had taken formal advice from Cabinet Office, whose “legal and constitutional adviser” informed them that simply announcing an appointment early would not get around the pre-election conventions.  What mattered was the effective date of the appointment, not when it was announced.    That prompted an approach to staff in the Minister’s office highlighting the potential problem.  They note that one way around it would be to extend the current Governor’s term, or appoint an acting Governor for six months, but there is no discussion of whether the Act really allows for that latter option. (The other option was simply to barge ahead and make an appointment anyway, with or without consultation with opposition parties).

On 29 November, the Minister of Finance (still Bill English) held a meeting with Neil Quigley, chair of the Reserve Bank Board.  Treasury provided a briefing note.  It noted that “the Board is running the process….we understand that the recommended candidate for your consideration will be provided in May 2017” but flagged the issue around the pre-election period, and noted the possible options (as above).  Suggesting that they still hadn’t looked that carefully at the details of the legislation, they advised the Minister that a new PTA would be required, even if an acting Governor was appointed.

Among the documents is a note for the new Minister of Finance, which was in the end not sent.  But it states that “the previous Minister of Finance met with Professor Quigley on 29 November 2016 and indicated comfort with the Board continuing their appointment process as outlined to him”, and noted that Treasury had no further advice planned on this appointment.

Things seemed to move quite quickly from late December.  In a 20 December note to Gabs Makhlouf, staff pass on reactions to the news that “Hon. Joyce might look to delay the appointment of a new RBNZ Governor until after the election”

Staff themselves remain “neutral” about such an approach –  it is not at all clear what credible alternatives they saw there as being –  but noted the need to engage the Board quite quickly, noting “the Board’s original plan was to put out a job advertisement in late January, the Board has already engaged headhunters, and the previous Minister had signalled a preference for proceeding to appoint a new Governor next year”.

Christmas holidays intervene, and the next paper is a briefing for the Minister in advance of a 20 January meeting with Neil Quigley, which again notes the options of extending the current Governor’s term or appointing an acting Governor for six months (again, incorrectly noting that either option would require a new PTA).  Even at that meeting, the Minister does not appear to have communicated a decision, as there is then a (not very informative) note suggesting another discussion on the issue with Treasury officials on 24 January.   Only by 1 February is there a formal Treasury report providing the information to facilitate the Minister’s preference to appoint Grant Spencer as Acting Governor (which, according to the paper, had not yet been discussed between Spencer and the Minister).  Only at this point is Treasury uncertain about the PTA position, noting that they were seeking Crown Law advice.

It all went to Cabinet on 7 February –  with no hint of any issue as to whether an acting Governor could legally be appointed –  and was announced later that day.

I’m not usually a big fan of Steven Joyce, but as far as I can tell from these papers (and a very similar set I got from his office) he is the only one to emerge from this process deserving credit.  The Bank’s Board had seemed to see no problem at all in making an appointment pre-election to take office in the midst of a possible change of government.  The Treasury didn’t either –  they would have been happy, if they could, simply to have had an appointment announced early.  And as late as the end of November, the then Minister of Finance (now Prime Minister) was apparently happy to carry on towards appointing the most powerful public official to take office just (as it turns out) a few days after the election.    It was only very late in the piece that Treasury realised that there was no provision for a PTA with an acting Governor (Crown Law presumably confirmed that, as there will be no PTA with Spencer) and there is no sign that any officials ever seriously considered whether an acting Governor appointment was strictly legal.

But shortly after taking office, Joyce seemed to cut through most of this, eventually presumably instructing/requesting the Board not to proceed with the planned process that had already begun, and instead to recommend him an acting Governor appointee.   In a sense (whatever the formal legalities) they were lucky to find Spencer willing –  I have heard that he was planning to have left the Bank by now.

To repeat, my concern isn’t that something will go badly wrong in the six months Grant is in charge.  It is a practical solution to a problem that is made so severe by the fact that so much power is vested in one person’s hands.  That should be changed by whoever becomes the Minister of Finance after the election (and the role of the Board in making appointments should also be revisited).   But the practical outcome they have adopted still looks rather dubious on legal grounds, and we are supposed to be ruled by laws, not by what is opportune.   I’m not a lawyer, and some of the doubt could have been resolved if the Board and Treasury had pro-actively released any legal advice they obtained on the points, but it doesn’t look clear-cut that the chosen path was strictly lawful.

And perhaps as concerning is that key figures – including the current Prime Minister –  saw no problem in an outgoing government making a long-term appointment to such a powerful position, to take office in the midst –  or immediately after –  an election campaign, especially one where there is the potential for material changes of policy emphasis and legislation in areas directly the responsibility of the Governor.



Thinking about senior central bank appointments

The Bank of England lost a Deputy Governor the other day.  The Hon. Charlotte Hogg had been chief operating officer of the Bank of England for the last few years, and was recently appointed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer as Deputy Governor (with responsibility for banking and markets).    She was apparently quite highly-regarded, as well as being a scion of the British establishment (both her father and mother are peers in their own right, her mother was head of John Major’s Downing St policy unit, and her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all viscounts and Cabinet ministers).

Senior appointees to Bank of England roles (both top executive positions and the non-executive appointees to the decisionmaking committees on monetary policy and regulatory matters) are subject to confirmation hearings before a parliamentary select committee.     The select committee doesn’t get to decide whether the appointees get the job –  so it isn’t like the US system –  but they can ask hard questions, and can write and publish reports on the suitability of a candidate.  The House of Commons is large enough that there are plenty of MPs who either never will be ministers, or have already had a term as a minister,  That seems to make them  –  even those from the governing party – more willing to ask hard questions than one might expect.

In the course of her confirmation hearings, it became apparent that Hogg had not declared and disclosed to the Bank of England that her brother was head of group strategy for Barclays –  holding a senior position (including involvement in regulatory matters) in one of the largest UK banks, and one for which the Bank of England has supervisory responsibility.    Worse still, earlier in the hearings she suggested to MPs that she had in fact done so.

It is a strange story.  At one point in this episode, Hogg had declared that she was totally confident she had complied with all the Bank’s codes of conduct because “I wrote them”.   Even if so, how it never occurred to her to ensure she disclosed her brother’s position –  erring on the safe side if nothing else –  is a bit of a puzzle.  I’m also quite surprised that it wasn’t known and recognised within the Bank anyway –  they are hands-on supervisors, Barclays is a big and important bank, and the brother’s name would be familiar to anyone with a modicum of knowledge of modern British political history.

The Treasury select committee published a fairly forthrightly critical report, and shortly before it was published Hogg announced that she will resign.  The Guardian has is a nice summary of the story.

There is no suggestion of any substantive inappropriate conduct (whether information being passed, or behaviour influenced) beyond the non-disclosure itself.  But the resignation is the sort of standard we should expect from holders of high, and powerful, public offices.  As Hogg herself put it

“We as public servants should not merely meet but exceed the standards we expect of others.”

Regulatory agencies require punctilious adherence to the rules by those they regulate.  They weaken their own moral position if their own people aren’t held to at least those sorts of standards.

But as I read and thought about the Hogg story, it got me thinking again about our own Reserve Bank, and holders of senior positions there.

The Governor of the Reserve Bank exercises an enormous amount of power –  far more, personally, albeit in a smaller economy and financial system –  than the Governor of the Bank of England.  In that institution, most of the policymaking powers are spread across committees in which the Governor has only a single vote, and where most of the members are either executives not appointed by him or are non-executives.  And yet there is nothing like the confirmation hearings process here.  Most of the appointment power doesn’t even rest with the Minister of Finance –  who can be grilled in Parliament – but with the barely-visible Board members, who themselves face no parliamentary scrutiny.  Like the Bank of England, our Reserve Bank has a couple of deputy governors –  statutory positions.   Holders of those roles don’t have formal voting power –  unlike at the Bank of England –  but there is also no parliamentary scrutiny.  (There were suggestions that a former Deputy Governor was allowed to keep share options in an institution whose New Zealand subsidiary he was responsible for regulating.  If so,  external scrutiny at the time of appointment might have challenged that.)

Compared to the British system, in particular, our system is riddled with democratic deficits:  too much power in one person’s hands, the appointment of that person largely in the hands of non-elected appointees, and no parliamentary scrutiny on appointment of any of these statutory positions (Governor, Board, deputy governors).

In the aftermath of the Charlotte Hogg affair there were curious suggestions of unequal treatment.  Former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is quoted as saying

“Would she have gone if she had been an older man whose sister worked at a bank? I wonder,”

One can only respond “well, I certainly hope so”.

But again, contrast the position at the Bank of England with that at the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.  Hogg was the third female Deputy Governor of the Bank of England.    On the Bank’s statutory decision-making committees, two of the nine members of the Monetary Policy Committee are women, as are two of the members of the Prudential Regulatory Committe, and one member of the Financial Stability Committee. (Hogg serves on all three.)

The Reserve Bank of New Zealand has never had a female Governor or Deputy Governor.  Looking at the current organisation chart, two senior management roles are held by women, but they are both third tier internal corporate positions.    There has never been a more senior woman in the Bank, and thus none of the core statutory policy areas (monetary policy, financial regulation and stability, financial markets) has ever been headed by a woman.  There is no woman on the Governing Committee, and unless things have changed markedly in the last two years, there aren’t (m)any women managers in those core areas either. In fact, it is only about five or six years since the most senior woman in the core policy areas was made redundant.  There are plenty of able women further down the organisation, and I still recall –  35 years on –  the fearsome grilling I got from one smart woman in an interview when I applied to join the Bank, but none in the core senior positions.    (There are women on the Bank’s Board, but it of course has no role in policymaking.)

Quite why this is so is a bit of a mystery.  I doubt it is a result of direct or conscious discrimination –  although decades ago, women had to retire from the career staff if they got married.   And while macroeconomics and markets tend to be areas more men gravitate to than women, Janet Yellen chairs the Fed, and the Bank of England has managed three female deputy governors in the last 15 years.   And even across the Tasman, two of three Assistant Governors in the core policy areas  of the Reserve Bank of Australia are female.

But, whatever explains the patterns up till now, it must surely become a bit of an issue sometimes soon; perhaps one for the Minister and the Board in considering future appointments, and perhaps too for MPs and lobby groups wondering quite how the Reserve Bank appears to have remained so male-dominated for so long.

If one runs through the standard sorts of list of people who might be possibilities to become Governor next March, there are no female names  (Bascand, Orr, Carr, Sherwin, Archer and so on).  And if one restricts the field to that sort of background, I don’t think it is just because people have inadvertently overlooked the female names.   There are no women I’m aware of in New Zealand who hold, or have held, senior-level macro or banking regulatory roles –  eg one could look around the Reserve Bank or the Treasury, or the more prominent of the market economists and commentators and find none.

But perhaps it is time to cast the net wider?  That might be sensible anyway.  It seems likely that the next Governor will lead and preside over some potentially quite significant governance changes, and in many ways the organisation needs revitalising and opening up.  One could make a pretty compelling case for the appointment of a person with strong change management capabilities, rather than a more traditional economist.  Character and judgement would still always be vitally important, but they might be less important than the specific technical expertise.  In this case, after all, we know that there will be not just a new Governor but also at least one, and possibly two, new deputy governors –  and in any top team, there is a need for a complementary set of skills, not just clones of each other.    I’m not that familiar with many senior business figures but, for example, one of our major commercial banks is already, apparently very ably, led by a woman.

I could add that, to the extent that this surprising under-representation of women does concern those in power, my proposal to reform Reserve Bank governance to establish a couple of statutory decisionmaking committees (a Monetary Policy Committee and a Prudential Policy Committee) would also more quickly up more roles to which the Minister of Finance could appoint able women.  There shouldn’t be any real shortage of suitable candidates to be considered.

On the topic of gubernatorial appointments, readers might recall that when the Minister of Finance last month deferred the appointment of a new Governor until well after the election, giving deputy governor, Grant Spencer, a six month term as acting Governor, I raised questions as to whether this appointment was strictly lawfully permissible.  As I stressed then, I had no particular concerns about Grant himself, and had actually been suggesting for some time a variant of the same solution –  giving Graeme Wheeler a short extension, if he had been willing to accept it.  But the Act doesn’t seem to be written in a way that allows a new person to be appointed, with no Policy Targets Agreement, for such a short period.

Because there were no clear answers from the government, and no pro-active release of the relevant papers, I asked for copies of the relevant papers from (a) the Minister, (b) the Treasury, and (c) the Reserve Bank Board.  I didn’t really envisage it as a burdensome request, and although I was sure they would withhold any formal legal advice they had, I was interested in the advice the various agencies had provided to the Minister and Cabinet on the point.

So far, it looks a lot like typical bureaucratic delay and obstruction.  The Minister of Finance didn’t respond until well after the 20 working days (and was thus in breach of the Act).  When he finally did respond it was to say that he was giving himself another month to respond

“the extension is required because your request necessitates a search through a large quantity of information and consultations are needed before a decision can be made on your request”

Frankly, it would be surprising if the Minister of Finance held very many documents at all on this issue, but time will tell.   A week earlier I had had the same postponement, and same justification, from the Treasury – and again it would be a little surprising (especially as when they asked, I made clear that I wasn’t after working level email exchanges on the issue).  Curiously, the Reserve Bank Board itself –  the people primarily responsible for appointing a Governor –  didn’t claim to have lots of documents they needed to search, only that delay was needed

because consultations necessary to make a decision on the request are such that a proper response to the request cannot reasonably be made within the original time limit.

It isn’t an urgent issue, and in substance I don’t really have much of a problem with the Spencer appointment, but it is hardly the sort of open government, or commitment to the spirit of the Official Information  Act one might wistfully, foolishly, hope for.

Reforming the Reserve Bank

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on where the Labour Party seemed to be going on monetary policy, informed by Alex Tarrant’s interest.co.nz article on his conversations with Grant Robertson.  It all seemed to amount to not very much –  wording changes to make explicit an interest in the labour market (employment/unemployment), but without much reason to think it would make much difference to anything of substance.  My suggestion was that there was a distinct whiff of virtue-signalling about it.   And the sort of change Robertson seemed interested in on the governance front  –  legislating the position of in-house technocrats –  seemed unlikely to be much of a step forward at all.

Last week, interest.co.nz had a piece on the same issues by former Herald economics editor Brian Fallow, also benefiting from an interview with Robertson.   Fallow pushes a bit harder.  His summary is that

The changes Labour proposes to make to the monetary policy framework sit somewhere between cosmetic and perilous, but closer to the former.

Cosmetic for the sorts of reasons I’ve outlined.  On the one hand, the Bank has always taken the labour market into account as one indicator of excess capacity.  And on the other hand, plenty of pieces of overseas central banking legislation refer to employment/unemployment somewhere, but there is little evidence that the central banks in those countries have run monetary policy much differently, on average over time, than the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has.

Robertson’s response is pretty underwhelming.

Asked how much difference the regime he advocates would have made, had it been in place in the past, he said, “In the very immediate past, not that much, truthfully. But there have been other times in our history, and there have been other examples around the world, when lower interest rates could have helped to reduce unemployment.”

If he was serious about this making a difference, he’d surely be able to quote chapter and verse.  When, where and how does he think it would have made a difference?

He is, however, clearly tantalised by the current situation

Even now, “Are we satisfied as a country that with 3.5% growth 5.2% unemployment is okay?”

Given that the Treasury thinks our NAIRU is nearer 4 per cent, I don’t think we should be content.  But Robertson has spent so long over the last few years defending Graeme Wheeler that he can’t quite bring himself, even now, to suggest that monetary policy could have been conducted better in the last five years, whether on the current mandate or something a little different.

If the proposed change isn’t cosmetic, Fallow worries that it could be perilous.  Why?  Because when he pushes Robertson he gets a more explicit –  and more concerning –  answer than the one Alex Tarrant got.

He has told interest.co.nz’s Alex Tarrant that he was not going to tell the Reserve Bank whether one objective is more important than the other.

Talking to me, however, he said that ultimately the bank would remain independent. “But if unemployment starts to get out of control I would expect in that environment it says ‘At this time we are preferencing that and we are going to lower rates by a greater percentage than we might have’.”

In the event of a stagflation scenario he would expect it to focus more on the falling output and employment side of the dilemma and to ease.

“I think the setting of a clear direction here is what is important.”

In short Robertson seems to be saying that if Parliament were to change the statute, the message to the bank would be when in doubt err on the side of stimulus.

If unemployment is prioritised by the Reserve Bank in such circumstances, it is a recipe for inflation getting away.  In the medium-term, monetary policy can really only affect nominal variables (inflation, price level, nominal GDP or whatever), it simply can’t affect real variables.  Using monetary policy to pursue such goals directly is a risky prescription.  I wouldn’t want to overstate the issue –  New Zealand isn’t heading for hyperinflation – but part of reason we and other countries ended up with persistently high inflation in the 1970s is that too much weight was placed on unemployment in setting monetary policy.  Getting inflation back down again was costly –  including in terms of increased unemployment.  On a smaller scale, as Fallow highlights, the desire to “give growth a chance” was part of what was behind the monetary policy misjudgements of 2003 to 2006, when monetary policy wasn’t tight enough.

Robertson’s words suggest he still hasn’t thought the issues through very deeply or carefully.  For now, I’m sticking with the “cosmetic” or virtue-signalling interpretation of what Labour is on about.   And I’m still uncomfortable at the lack of command of the issues and experience in someone who aspires to be Minister of Finance later this year.

But yesterday, a mainstream economist came out in support of more or less the direction Robertson is proposing.  In his youth Peter Redward spent a few years at the Reserve Bank, and then spent time in various roles, including at Barclays and Deutsche Bank, before returning to New Zealand and establishing his own economic and financial markets advisory firm.  He focuses on emerging Asian foreign exchange markets, but keeps a keen eye on monetary policy developments in New Zealand.

In his short piece at Newsroom, Peter Redward says It’s time for a Reserve Bank change.  He notes of the last few years that

Whether Governor Wheeler consciously aimed for a hawkish interpretation of the Act, or not, we may never know. But hawkish he’s been, leading to tighter monetary conditions than were necessary, boosting the New Zealand dollar and confining thousands of New Zealanders to needless unemployment.

And argues that

…maybe it’s time to adopt a dual mandate in the Act. One possibility is the dual mandate of the U.S. Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve has a two percent inflation target but it also targets ‘maximum employment’. Economists have differing interpretations of ‘maximum employment’ so it acts as a constraint, and that’s the point.

While no one knows exactly where ‘maximum employment’ in New Zealand is, I believe most economists would agree that it’s likely to be consistent with an unemployment rate somewhere around 4.5 percent (give or take 0.25 percent). If the Reserve Bank had a dual mandate, its elevated level would have acted to constrain the bank’s aborted tightening of policy in 2009 and 2014.

I’m very sympathetic to his critique of Graeme Wheeler’s stewardship of monetary policy, and highlighted in numerous of my own commentaries, after it became apparent that the 2014 OCR increases had been an unnecessary mistake, the Governor’s apparent indifference to an unemployment rate that remained well above any estimates of a NAIRU.

But I remain a bit more sceptical than Peter appears to be about how much difference a re-specified mandate might have made.  As I’ve argued before, past Reserve Bank research suggests that faced with the sorts of shocks New Zealand experienced, policymakers at the Fed, the RBA and the Bank of Canada would have responded much the same way as the Reserve Bank of New Zealand did.  That work was done for periods prior to 2008/09 –  for most of the time since then the Fed was at or very near the lower bound on interest rates, so the game was a bit different –  but it isn’t clear that the specification of the target has been the problem in New Zealand in the last few years.  After all, simply on inflation grounds alone the Reserve Bank hasn’t done well.

Here is a chart of the Reserve Bank’s unemployment rate projections from the March 2014 MPS, the occasion when they started raising the OCR.

2014 U projections.png

The second observation is the last actual data they had –  the unemployment rate for the December 2013 quarter.  So when they started the tightening cycle they thought the unemployment would be falling quite considerably that year, before levelling out around what they thought of as something near what they must have thought of as the practical NAIRU  (this was before last year’s revisions to the HLFS which lowered unemployment rates, and NAIRU estimates, for the last few years).    The problem then wasn’t that they didn’t care about unemployment, it is that they got their forecasts –  particular as regards inflation –  badly wrong.  It isn’t clear why a different target specification would have altered the policy judgement at the time.

Perhaps it would have done so once it became apparent that the OCR increases hadn’t really been necessary, but a stubborn refusal by the Governor to concede mistakes, even with hindsight, plus a mindset firmly focused on how “extraordinarily stimulatory” monetary policy allegedly was –  when no one had any real idea what a neutral interest rate might be in the current environment, and when inflation stubbornly didn’t rise much if at all –  seem more likely explanations.    The Bank kept forecasting that inflation would rise and unemployment would fall –  the jointly desired outcomes.

(And if one looks at the Bank’s forecasts in mid 2010, when they made the previous unnecessary start on tightening, one gets much the same picture –  forecasts of falling unemployment and rising inflation, that simply didn’t happen.)

So why should we supposed that a different specification of the target would have made much difference to how policy was set?  We had an institution that was misreading things, in a political climate where no one seemed much bothered by the unemployment rate holding up, and where for a long time financial markets endorsed the approach taken by the Reserve Bank (often more enthusiastic for future tightenings than even the Governor and his advisers were).   Getting something closer to the right model of the world (for the times), and quickly learning from one’s mis-steps, seem likely to matter more than the words of the Act in this area.

As I’ve said repeatedly here, I’m not firmly opposed to amending the relevant clauses of the Reserve Bank Act to mention the desirability of things like a low unemployment rate.  But even the Federal Reserve Act makes clear that good monetary policy focused on a nominal target creates a climate consistent with high employment.  High employment isn’t a goal for the Federal Reserve is supposed to pursue directly, even if –  all else equal –  a high unemployment rate relative to an (uncertain) NAIRU is a useful indicator that something might be wrong with monetary policy settings. It isn’t clear there is anything much to gain from such amendments –  or that they are where the real issues regarding the Reserve Bank are – but sometimes perhaps virtue needs to be signalled?    My own concrete suggestion in this area would be to require the Reserve Bank to publish, every six months, its own estimates of the NAIRU and to explain the reasons for the deviations of actual unemployment from the NAIRU, how quickly that gap could be expected to close, and the contribution of monetary policy to the evolution of the gap.

Brian Fallow’s article suggested that Labour still hasn’t settled on how to reform the governance of the Reserve Bank.

Robertson is non-committal at this stage on the composition of a monetary policy committee to take interest rate decisions, including to what extent it should include members from outside the bank.

Peter Redward has a more specific proposal for him.

What’s needed is a formal Monetary Board complete with published minutes and, released after a grace period, transcripts of the meeting and the voting record of members. In a recent speech, U.S. Federal Reserve Vice Chair, Stanley Fischer, argued that this arrangement is superior to the sole responsibility model in achieving outcomes and accountability. Changes to the role and responsibility of the Governor will necessitate changes to the structure of the Reserve Bank Board. Best practice would suggest that a Monetary Board should be created to set monetary policy with the Reserve Bank Board selecting candidates for the committee while maintaining oversight of the bank. To ensure that external board members are not simply captured by the bank it may be necessary to provide a secretariat similar to the Fonterra Shareholder’s Council, operated at arms-length from bank management.

It isn’t my favoured model, but it would be a considerable step in the right direction, and far superior – in terms of heightened accountability and good governance of a powerful government agency –  to Graeme Wheeler’s preference to legislate his own internal committee.  The biggest problem I see with the Redward proposal, is that it has too much of a democratic deficit.  Monetary policy decisionmakers shouldn’t be appointed by other unelected people –  the Reserve Bank Board –  but by people (the Minister of Finance and his Cabinet colleagues) whom we the voters can toss out. That is how it is pretty much everywhere else.

Peter’s proposal focuses on monetary policy.  But, of course, the Reserve Bank has much wider policy responsibilities, including a lot of discretionary power –  not constrained by anything like the PTA –  in the area of financial regulation.  I presume he would also favour committee decisionmaking for those functions.  I’ve proposed two committees –  a Monetary Policy Committee and a Prudential Policy Committee, each appointed by the Minister of Finance, with a majority of non-executive members, and with each member subject to parliamentary confirmation hearings (although not parliamentary veto).  It is a very similar model to that put in place in the United Kingdom in the last few years.  It puts much less reliance on one person –  who will sometimes be exceptional, and occasionally really bad, but on average will be about average –  and would be more in step with the way in which other countries govern these sorts of functions, and with the way we govern other New Zealand public sector agencies.  I hope the Labour Party is giving serious thought to these sorts of options, and while the headline interest is often in monetary policy, the governance of the financial regulatory powers is at least as important to get right.

And then of course, getting a good Governor will always matter a lot.  The Governor, as chief executive, will set the tone within the organisation, and determine what behaviours are rewarded and which are frowned on or penalised.  If the Reserve Bank failed over the last few years, it wasn’t just because Graeme Wheeler was the sole monetary policy decisionmaker –  his advisers mostly seemed to agree with him –  but because of the sort of organisation he fostered, where “getting with the agenda” seemed more important and more valued than dissent or challenge, in area where few people know anything much with a very high degree of confidence.    Character and judgement are probably, at the margin, more important than high level technical expertise.

And while people are thinking about reforms to the Reserve Bank Act don’t lose sight of how little accountability and control there is over the Reserve Bank’s use of public money, or about the provisions it has carved out for itself from the Official Information Act which allow it to keep secret submissions on major policy proposals even –  perhaps even especially –  when they come from parties who would be affected by those proposals.

Revising the Reserve Bank Act was the first legislative priority for the first Labour government that took office in 1935.    I’m not suggesting the same priority if there is a new Labour-led government later in the year, but there is a real and substantial agenda of reforms to address, which will take time to get right, and which take on some added urgency in view of the vacancy in the office of the Governor that needs to be filled by next March.   That appointment –  a key step in the reform and revitalisation of the Reserve Bank –  should be led by whoever is Minister of Finance, not by the faceless (and unaccountable) men and women of the Reserve Bank’s Board, the people who have presided complacently over the mis-steps of the last few years.