Orr defends himself

There seems to have been almost no media coverage of an extraordinary statement put out late on Wednesday by the going-rogue Governor of the Reserve Bank, Adrian Orr.  Perhaps he was fortunate that all eyes were already on Thursday’s Budget.

I’ve been drawing attention to the way in which Orr has been speaking out on all and sundry issues – often contentious political issues – for which neither he nor the Bank has been assigned responsibility by Parliament.   We’ve had climate change issues, infrastructure spending, both sides of the bank conduct issue (where he was defending the banks only to flip sides and start poking a stick at them), sustainable agriculture, and capital gains taxes. (Various posts touching on the Governor’s comments are here.)

Last week he was at it again, giving an interview to Stuff’s Hamish Rutherford in which he took the opportunity to attack the way the Christchurch rebuild had been done, including in particular the lack of opportunities for his former employer, the New Zealand Superannuation Fund.  And a couple of days out from the Budget, he took another opportunity to call for more government infrastructure spending, more government borrowing, and to offer his thoughts on public procurement processes.  Anyone would think he was a party leader at election time.

There were two separate classes of issues arising out of the interview with Hamish Rutherford.  The first was around the details of what Orr was saying about the Christchurch rebuild and the substance of NZSF’s involvement or lack of it.    The former minister, Gerry Brownlee, understandably took umbrage at the substance of Orr’s remarks, but the details of that particular spat weren’t my concern (although a commenter in detail here suggests Brownlee was on the stronger ground).

The second class of issues –  and the focus of my concern – is around the appropriateness of the Governor speaking out at all on these (and the other) issues.   As I summed it up the other day, the Governor’s comments are very unwise and quite inappropriate –  and would be so regardless of any substantive merits in his views.   The Governor holds an important public office, in which he wields (singlehandedly at present) enormous power in a limited range of areas.  It really matters –  if we care at all about avoiding the politicisation of all our institutions –  that officials like the Governor (or the Police Commissioner, the Chief Justice, the Ombudsman or whoever) are regarded as trustworthy, and not believed to be using the specific platform they’ve been afforded to advance personal agendas in areas miles outside the mandate Parliament has given them.   We don’t want a climate in which only partisan hacks have any confidence in officeholders, and only then when their side got to appoint the particular officeholder.  And that is the path Adrian Orr seems –  no doubt unintentionally – to be taking us down.  As I’ve noted previously, as his time in office lengthened, Don Brash made something of the same mistake.    That was unfortunate and inappropriate, but in 14 years in office I’d be surprised if Don managed as many overtly political comments as Adrian Orr has delivered in less than two months.

I’ve had conversations with people, including journalists, who can’t really see a problem.  I guess Orr is still in his honeymoon phase, and the journalists are still just grateful they no longer face a Governor who wouldn’t even communicate properly on issues that were his clear and specific responsibility.  Perhaps it helps to see the problem by supposing that a new Governor had come to office and was giving interviews calling for, say,:

  • doing nothing about climate change,
  • cutting capital taxes,
  • lamenting that the government had not just stayed out of central Christchurch and had just landowners get on with it,
  • suggesting that the state stay out of housebuilding,
  • promoting irrigation schemes, and (for the sake of argument)
  • attacking light rail

That new Governor might be perfectly technically capable of doing monetary policy and financial regulatory tasks.  But nonetheless, there would almost certainly be an outcry –  people from the left attacking the Governor for his attacks on policies of the government of the day, and people on the right using the Governor’s comments to buttress their anti-government rhetoric.  It  would be unwise, and should be quite unacceptable for a Governor to be making such comments.  And it is no more wise, or acceptable/appropriate, for him to be making comments on the other side of such issues.

I’m not suggesting that the Governor is an active Labour/Greens partisan, making the comments he does to try to advance the interests of the governing parties.  Probably he believes he is better than them anyway.  But clearly his personal views on all manner of issues seem to align with those of Labour (in particular), and since he has lots of turf battles to win (around the reform of the Reserve Bank) he probably judges that it doesn’t hurt his personal cause to be speaking as he has.  But even if that works out for him in the short-term it isn’t desirable.  His interests aren’t the national interest.  It is conceivable that the second half of his term could see him working with a National government, and he’ll have made that more difficult with these overtly political comments, ranging well beyond his brief.  And he will have increased the risk that future Reserve Bank Governor appointments will be made on an overtly partisan basis –   “if the Governor feels free to speak on absolutely anything, we want someone who’ll be championing our particular causes”.  That would be highly undesirable.

After Orr’s comments last week, there was an outraged response from Gerry Brownlee (on the specifics) but there was also a response from the Opposition leader, Simon Bridges.  That upped the ante quite a bit, even though Bridges’ statement was pretty moderate.

Bridges did not directly answer questions about whether he believed Orr comments were a sign he had sided with the new Government, or on the tone of Brownlee’s comments, but said Orr would have taken a lesson from the episode.

“I am sure he [Orr] will have seen what Mr Brownlee has said, and you know, there’ll just be a lesson there in terms of sticking to the knitting in terms of what his remit is.

“I’m sure he’ll want to be very careful about not wanting to step into legitimate political debates, rather than his mandate as Reserve Bank governor.”

Bridges said National had supported Orr being appointed governor.

“He’s a good guy, he’s a clever economist, he’s a great communicator, so he’s got the skills to be governor.”

That “stick to his knitting” line was particular welcome, but it was still a pretty emollient statement. Opposition leaders don’t wade in every day criticising the Governor –  in fact, memory suggests (perhaps incorrectly) it is really quite unusual –  but it was clearly a statement that was seeking a de-escalation.  There was no criticism of Orr’s appointment or his basic skills and qualities, and really just a quite moderate call for a minor course correction.   When I saw the Bridges comments, I assumed that would be the end of the matter: the Opposition would take it no further, Orr would retire to lick his wounds and reflect, and perhaps in time emissaries might be dispatched to make clear that the Bank recognised where its core responsibilities did and didn’t lie.  Others at the Reserve Bank, meanwhile, (better schooled in the responsibilities and limits of a central bank) would breath a sigh of relief

But no.  Instead late on Wednesday the Governor put out a full page statement under the Reserve Bank name defending himself, and if anything taking the offensive, claiming the freedom (nay, responsibility) to speak out on almost anything.   “Doubling down” was my quick summary.

The Governor began

I greatly respect and appreciate the operational independence of the Reserve Bank.

Maybe, but talking so freely on all manner of contentious political issues does nothing to foster long-term public support for that operational independence.

My comments about infrastructure investment reported in the recent Stuff article of 15 May related not only to my previous role as CEO of the NZ Super Fund, but also to my current role as Governor of the Reserve Bank.

There are two points here.  First, as Governor he shouldn’t be giving interviews about his previous job –  we didn’t hear Don Brash giving interviews about Trustbank or Alan Bollard about Treasury once they were Governor. It is all the more important to maintain that clear separation given that in this case the Governor had previously had another government job.    But, second, this is where he begins to double-down, claiming that it is right and appropriate, as Governor, to be talking openly about these contentious political issues, for which he has no direct policy responsibility.

He disagrees

I spoke openly and frankly because that is a desired feature of the role of Reserve Bank Governor.

Yes, we would welcome a Governor who spoke clearly, and accessibly, on the issues Parliament has assigned to him.  His immediate predecessor didn’t do that bit of the job well at all. But that is very different from a Governor sounding off, without nuance, on all manner of highly contentious issues.   The Governor himself may “desire” to do so –  and no doubt it makes good copy so journalists won’t say no –  but perhaps the Governor could point to any other indication that the public interest is being served by the approach he is taking?

There follow a couple of paragraphs about the specifics of NZSF and Christchurch rebuild issues, including

Any lack of investment by the NZ Super Fund was not caused by lack of commitment from either Mr Brownlee or the NZ Super Fund. Rather it was due to no access for third-party capital into the core infrastructure space, for example, ports (air and sea), transport, electricity distribution and so on. These were decisions made by the appropriate authorities at the time.

It still isn’t clear why NZSF involvement (or any third-party capital) would have been appropriate in any of the major public aspects of the rebuild process,  most of which were (as my commenter points out) well below the size threshold NZSF itself says it is looking for (and bigger ones, notably the convention centre and the stadium remain of questionable economic value).    But, even setting that to one side, there is something extraordinary about this issue being fought on the website of the operationally-independent Reserve Bank.  It is, quite simply, none of the Bank’s responsibility.

But here the Governor pivots to try to claim that this is all very much part of his new responsibilities.

That challenge is not unique to Christchurch or New Zealand. It is a global financial challenge and one that leads to financial instability at times, especially stressed balance sheets.

This is a stretch, to say the very least.    Even if we were to allow that it was a “global financial challenge”, it wasn’t one in Christchurch, and certainly posed (and poses) no threat to financial stability in New Zealand.     One might, as well, worry about pots of government money, and the way they can be used to subvert good decisionmaking, robust allocation of capital, and so on –  perhaps especially if the Governor of a central bank starts championing the causes of such government funds.

The Governor attempts to generalise

The Reserve Bank Act requires us to promote a sound and efficient financial system. The Policy Targets Agreement that I have signed with the Minister of Finance also requires that, along with maintaining low and stable inflation, the Reserve Bank must contribute to maximising sustainable employment.

But even here he, no doubt deliberately, skates over some important language in the Act and the Policy Targets Agreement.  For example, the Act does not require the Reserve Bank to “promote a sound and efficient financial system” .  Here is the key provision of the Reserve Bank Act

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.

In other words, it isn’t a general obligation, but a constraint on how the Bank’s statutory powers are used.  The specific statutory powers to regulate banks must be used in a way that promotes the maintenance of a sound and efficient financial system.  There is quite a difference from weighing in championing PPPs, more government debt, or specific solutions to particular Christchurch rebuild issues.

Similarly, in the Policy Targets Agreement –  a provision governing the conduct of monetary policy – there is just this descriptive statement

The conduct of monetary policy will maintain a stable general level of prices, and contribute to supporting maximum sustainable employment within the economy.

and a requirement to explain in each MPS

The conduct of monetary policy will maintain a stable general level of prices, and contribute to supporting maximum sustainable employment within the economy.

No one thinks that offering interviews on PPPs, sustainable agriculture, or the Christchurch rebuild is what is meant by “the conduct of monetary policy”.

Well, no one other than the Governor that is. Because he goes on

I have spoken about specific issues recently because increased infrastructure investment opportunities provide sound investment choices, risk diversification for financing goods and services, and improves maximum sustainable employment by relieving capacity constraints.   These are all core components of the Reserve Bank’s role and something we often speak about in our Financial Stability Reports.

I almost fell off my chair laughing when I read that line.  When I was young at the Bank we used to occasionally argue that we were free to talk about absolutely anything because almost anything could be argued to affect price stability, in some form or another (resource usage and all that).  There was even a statutory provision.

10 Formulation and implementation of monetary policy

In formulating and implementing monetary policy the Bank shall—

(a)  have regard to the efficiency and soundness of the financial system:
(b) consult with, and give advice to, the Government and such persons or organisations as the Bank considers can assist it to achieve and maintain the economic objective of monetary policy.

But no one took that sort of ambitious –  rather silly – argument very seriously.  At least, it appears, until the Governor came along.    Now, it seems, the Governor wants to openly argue that absolutely anything if within his purview.

Even then he seems confused. For example, he claims that

…..increased infrastructure investment opportunities………improves maximum sustainable employment by relieving capacity constraints.

Well, maybe eventually if the infrastructure investment itself is robust and cost-effective (a test much infrastructure spending in New Zealand fails).  But, as no doubt his economists could point out to him, in the short to medium increased infrastructure spending puts more pressure on resources, and exacerbates capacity constraints and inflationary pressure (all that additional spending before the capacity comes on line).  And then he goes on to assert that these are “core components” of what the Reserve Bank does. and are “something we often speak about in the our Financial Stability Reports”.   Which is an odd claim, since issues about relieving capacity constraints would appear more naturally to belong in Monetary Policy Statements.  And doubly odd in that when I checked the most recent Financial Stability Report, there was a but one reference to “infrastructure” in the entire document, and that a reference to something they call the “retirement saving infrastructure”.   But there is a new FSR out next week, so I guess the Governor will be ensuring it does touch on infrastructure issues?

It all smacks of a statement pulled together in a rush, under pressure.  He clearly hasn’t stopped to think of the total non-viability of a Governor addressing such issues in ways the government of the day doesn’t like (and thus the inappropriateness of only addressing it in ways they do like) or of the implications of his position –  at future press conferences or FEC hearings he’d have no grounds to refuse comments on almost any aspect of policy some mischevious questioner wanted to ask about.  Immigration policy Governor?  Welfare policy Governor?  And so on.  It is a reckless path.

It isn’t unlawful, of course, for the Governor to speak on these issues.  Perhaps, over time, a Governor could develop a sufficient reputation in office for his stewardship of his core responsibilities that people look to him or her to comment occasionally on a slightly wider range of issues. But to wade in, on so many contentious issues, in an utterly non-nuanced way, so early in his term seems extremely unwise and quite inappropriate.  The Minister of Finance and the chair of the Bank’s Board should be making that point forcefully to the Governor, as often as is necessary until his behaviour changes.

Back when the Reserve Bank Board advertised the job last year, two of the qualities they claimed to be looking for were:

  • Personal style will be consistent with the national importance and gravitas of the role.

  • The successful candidate will also demonstrate an appreciation of the significance of the Bank’s independence and the behaviours required for ensuring long-term sustainability of that independence.

Orr’s approach at present isn’t consistent with either of those.

And he appears to be carrying on as he started. In the Sunday Star-Times yesterday, Orr was again being quoted on things that are little or none of his responsibility.

Last year, New Zealand banks reported a combined $5.19b in profits, up just over $355 million year-on-year.

New Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr said he was perplexed by the ongoing strength in bank profits.

Perhaps he might be “perplexed” but it really isn’t anything to do with a prudential regulator.  If there are competition issues, we have a Commerce Act and government ministers.  He went on

Checks on whether bank profits were sustainable would form a significant part of the “culture check” being undertaken by the Reserve Bank and Financial Markets Authority, Orr said.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry in Australia revealed serious misconduct by New Zealand banks’ parent companies.

That prompted New Zealand regulators to demand more information from New Zealand banks, which they had until May 18 to deliver.

“I think you’ve always got to be sure that they are competing properly and they are behaving responsibly,” Orr said.

“If they’re making profits, good on them, but let’s make sure they’re long-term sustainable profits and there’s true competition in the markets.”

To repeat, almost none of this is anything to do with the Reserve Bank’s statutory areas of responsibility.  Perhaps it plays to a populist mood, but it fails to respect boundaries, including the reasons why we assign different functions to different agencies.  And the public mood is a fickle mistress.

Perhaps comments on bank profits are slightly less egregious, in some circumstances, than those on climate change, sustainable agriculture, capital gains taxes, PPPs or whatever, but none of its suggests a Governor with the sort of self-discipline and recognition of limits that the role demands.  Much of it seems more attuned to grabbing headlines, than to offering the sort of nuanced reflection that might occasionally provide a useful contribution to a thoughtful debate on some important issues.

It is still early days in the Governor’s term, but a change of approach is already well overdue.  It is not as if there aren’t plenty of issues that the Governor is most definitely responsible for –  and accountable for –  that he could be getting quietly on with.

 

A wager for the Minister of Finance to consider

In the speech I linked to in yesterday’s post, I noted that

…from all appearances, our leaders (political especially, but also bureaucratic) have largely given up, perhaps idly hoping that something will turn up. And occasionally inserting “higher productivity” into a speech isn’t evidence of serious intent – if anything, it seems more like a substitute.

and

Judging by the inaction of our leaders in tackling the persistent productivity failure it seems that when it comes to crunch ours (regardless of party) care much less about the kids – of this generation and the next – than the cheap rhetoric of election campaigns might suggest. Giving up on productivity – in practice, and whatever the rhetoric – is a betrayal of our kids (and their kids). And most especially it betrays the children towards the bottom of the socioeconomic scales, those who typically end up paying the most severe price of economic and social failure.

I’d written that a few days ago, but if anything events of the last few days just confirm my concern.

I gave the speech the first time over breakfast on Thursday morning.  I’d just read Amy Adams’ pre-Budget op-ed on Stuff.    There was nothing in that at all about productivity (word or idea), only self-satisfied comments about the allegedly wonderful economy National had bequeathed labour.  That, you’ll recall, was the one with 1.5 per cent productivity growth in total over the past five years.

I didn’t listen to her boss’s speech in Parliament, but I get Simon Bridges’ emails and this was his post-Budget line

This Government was gifted an incredible legacy by hard working New Zealanders and by National. They inherited a strong, growing economy improving the lives of New Zealand families. They inherited a much more prosperous and outward looking country.   

Yet today they’ve delivered a Budget that is strewn with broken promises. No universal cheaper doctor’s visits, 1800 extra cops that aren’t coming anytime soon, no money to build Dunedin Hospital, not to mention a raft of new taxes from a Government that promised ‘no new taxes’ in its first term.

Again, nothing at all about productivity, or the possibilities that it can offer all of us.  This was, after all, the man of whose first economics speech as leader, I noted

500 initiatives [something he’d boasted of in the speech] and we still had barely any productivity growth in the last five years.  And, as I recall, one of the BGA goals was a big increase in the export (and, presumably, import) share of GDP: those shares have actually been shrinking.  Productivity levels languish miles behind the better advanced economies, and the gaps showed no sign of closing.

But what of the current government?

Sure enough, there were quite a few references to productivity, and lifting it, in the Minister’s material.    Eight (to “productive” or “productivity”) in the speech alone.  In the Minister’s Fiscal Strategy Report (with the subheading “Foundations for the future”) there were 17 references to productivity (quite a few of them mentions of the Productivity Commission) and another fifteeen uses of “productive” (often prefaced by the aspiration “more”).

Which is fine and good as far as it goes.  But what backed it up?  Not much.

On the very first page of the Fiscal Strategy Report, the government’s priorities are described

The Government’s priorities were set out in the Budget Policy Statement in December 2017. They are:

• Building quality public services for all New Zealanders and improving access to core services, such as health and education.
• Taking action on child poverty and homelessness.
• Supporting families to get ahead and sharing the wealth generated by our economy with a wide range of New Zealanders.
• Sustainable economic development and supporting the regions.
• Managing our natural resources and taking action against environmental challenges, such as climate change.

That document outlined the Government’s ambitious plan to reduce child poverty, protect the environment, create decent jobs, and build more affordable houses.

And not a word, not even an allusion, to beginning to close those productivity gaps.  The Budget material as a whole looks as if referring quite often to lifting productivity was a substitute for actually doing anything serious about it creating a better climate for it.

If I recall correctly, there were a couple of references to things that might help.  For example, there was mention of tax reform flowing out of the Tax Working Group’s recommendation.  We all assume a limited capital gains tax will emerge at the end of the process, and not much more (land taxes, for example, became infeasible once the land under the family home was ruled out).  There might be a decent case for a limited capital gains tax, at least on grounds of (apparent) equity, but no one thinks a CGT is going to make any material difference to New Zealand’s productivity performance.  If the Minister really did, he’d be making the case, documenting the evidence etc.

There was also mention of the new R&D tax credit.  I guess reasonable people can differ on how much impact that will have –  my doubts are here and here – but I don’t know anyone who thinks it is a big part of changing the overall picture of productivity performance in New Zealand.

And then, of course, there is the Provincial Growth Fund. I guess the Minister’s party is in a coalition with New Zealand First, so he has to talk up the benefits of spending all that money.  Everyone else recognises that it is no part of a serious growth (in productivity) strategy.

And, on the other hand, there is not a mention of the (real) exchange rate, one of the more pressing imbalances in the New Zealand economy.

But don’t just take it from me.  The Treasury does the  economic forecasts.   They do expect a bit more productivity growth in the next few years than in the last few years, but (a) mostly that looks like an assumption that things just get back to less-bad “normal”, and (b) the assumed rates of productivity growth aren’t going to make any inroads at all on the huge gaps to the rest of the advanced world.   And although an increasingly open economy –  trading more with the rest of the world –  is usually part of any successful catch-up strategy, as I showed yesterday the Treasury forecasts suggest no reversal in the decline in the export/GDP share that took place over the last few years.

Treasury does its forecasts on the basis on government policy, but that doesn’t take account of things that are still just political promises (even if quite likely to be), like the capital gains tax.

So perhaps the Minister of Finance –  like his colleague the Minister of Housing – thinks The Treasury has it all wrong, and is far too pessimistic.  Perhaps he’s really convinced that his government will successfully turn round our productivity performance, and get us on the track for catching the OECD top-tier.   As I noted in my speech, with the sorts of productivity growth rates various catch-up OECD economies have managed over the last 15 years (crisis, recession, and all) we could halve that gap in fifteen years, and close it altogether by 2050.

US economist Bryan Caplan encourages people who really believe an argument to express it in the form of a wager (typically for reasonably modest amounts, of around $100).  Doing so forces the parties to identify clearly what they do and don’t believe, and think carefully about the probabilities.  In that spirit, I’d be happy to offer a wager to the Minister of Finance (and/or his colleagues, the Prime Minister, or the Minister for Trade and Export Growth).

Conditional on them remaining in government, I’d expect that, if they are really serious about productivity –  lifting the possibilities for our kids –  and believe they have the strategy to do it (even if not all the bits are yet on the statute books), they would be willing to wager that New Zealand will average annual labour productivity growth over the next six years of at least 2 per cent.  I’d be only too happy to take the other side of such a bet, because I see no sign in government policy of anything that will substantially turn around our productivity performance.  No doubt, there will be the odd good year –  some of which might just be measurement –  but I’d be very surprised if we manage total labour productivity growth of anything close to even 5 per cent in the next five years.  Of itself, that wouldn’t be disastrous –  it would be quite a bit better than the last five years –  but, once again, it would mean no progress in closing those gaps.      (Of course, if I were to lose such a bet, I’d mostly be delighted –  better prospects for all of us and our kids.)

In fact, I’m sure the Minister of Finance knows his strategy won’t make any material difference to New Zealand’s dismal productivity performance.  If so, the words are just a substitute for action, and the betrayal of our kids stretches on through yet another government.

 

Very unwise and quite inappropriate

That was my immediate reaction yesterday when someone asked my view of Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr’s latest public comments, on the Christchurch rebuild, PPPs, government infrastructure spending, and so on.

Here was just a sample of what the Reserve Bank Governor said, as reported by Stuff’s Hamish Rutherford

Orr, who is now the governor of the Reserve Bank, made an enthusiastic plea for New Zealand to embrace “third party capital” – a reference to public private partnerships – as a means of boosting investment in infrastructure.

“This country, we’ve gone through the lowest ever global interest rates, we’re in good fiscal health. Why aren’t we investing?” Orr said in an interview.

“Personally, as a citizen of New Zealand I’m very pleased to see public investment being planned and trying to get underway, and I’m even more pleased as a citizen of the world that third party capital is increasingly being allowed to be part of the public infrastructure investment.”

Orr acknowledged he was giving a plug for his former employer, the NZ Super Fund

He goes on to complain about the rebuild process, and the lack of investment opportunities for NZSF, about public procurement processes, even weighing on the woes of Fletcher Building.

As I’ve said before, if having left the NZSF job he was now retired –  or even just joining the ranks of company directors and consultants –  there would be no problem with him expressing his views.

But he is a public servant.  And as Governor of the Reserve Bank he personally exercises an extraordinary degree of power, singlehandedly making the monetary policy decisions, as well as exercising a huge range of regulatory powers over banks, insurance companies and other non-bank deposit-takers.  He is the most powerful unelected individual in New Zealand.    In the areas Parliament has empowered him.

But the stuff he was talking about in his interview yesterday was –  again –  none of his official business.  He is welcome to his personal views, but when he speaks publically he should be speaking only on the things he has official responsibility for.   Either that, or change jobs and make a run for Parliament.  As someone observed to me recently, too often Orr sounds as if he would really prefer to be Minister of Finance.  But he isn’t.  He has no popular mandate, and responsibilities only as specifically laid down in various bits of legislation (primarily the Reserve Bank Act).

Why does it matter?  Because if the public is to be confident in delegating huge amounts of power to unelected officials, they also need to be confident that those unelected officials aren’t misusing that power, or the pulpit it can provide, to pursue personal or political agendas.

I’ve written several posts recently about the new book, Unelected Power, by former Bank of England Deputy Governor Paul Tucker.  Touching on some of these sorts of issues, Tucker notes that in his time at the top of the Bank of England he never knew the personal politics of his senior colleagues, and he was glad of that.   Perhaps that is just the famed English reserve, but it is something to reflect on here.  I’ve written previously about Don Brash overstepping that mark –  in a way that really soured relations between the Bank and the then government.   Arguably Orr’s case is worse, both because he is weighing in on immediately relevant political issues, including more or less directly attacking the stewardship of the previous government, and because he is overtly on the same side as the current government.  When (as central bank Governor) you openly disagree with the current government on general policy issues it might still be unwise and very wrong , but at least no one thinks you are in league with the government.   The whole case for an independent central bank, is so that they can act independently, in those specific areas Parliament has asked them to handle.  The Christchurch rebuild, PPPs, infrastructure finance more generally, are not among those responsibilities.  Nor, for that matter, is “giving a plug” for the Governor’s former employer.

When the initial Stuff story appeared, I was a bit surprised the journalist didn’t seem to have sought a comment from the Opposition Finance spokesperson, who as it happens is also a Christchurch MP.   You just do not see anything like this degree of overt political comment from central bank Governors in other advanced economies, and one of Paul Tucker’s other points is that delegating power to independent agencies really only works well if the legislature is effective in scrutinising and holding it to account the independent agency, including ensuring that it is (a) doing its job, and (b) only doing its job (in other words, sticking to the mandate democratically elected people have given them).   Parliamentary scrutiny of the Reserve Bank was very weak under the previous government, and appears to be no better now.  There is still no word from Amy Adams about the Governor flagrantly overstepping the bounds.

But a few hours later, her colleague Gerry Brownlee came out swinging at the Governor.  I don’t often agree with Mr Brownlee, but on this occasion his remarks seemed both forthright and to the point.  He was “incensed”

Brownlee said he was “incensed” by the comments which he believes mischaracterised the situation. As Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister he visited the fund about investment options but were told were not on the scale the fund needed.

“It certainly looks like the Reserve Bank governor has bought into the current Government’s mantra that everything the previous government did was wrong and everyone should join in in saying so.

“And I think that’s a very dangerous position for him to be in.”

When a senior MP describes himself as “incensed” by comments made by the central bank Governor –  especially when they aren’t about things in the Governor’s remit –  it is time for the grown-ups in the room to wake up and do something about the situation.   When the Governor so undermines confidence in himself, he weakens his own position, he weakens the Bank, and that is potentially damaging for the country.

I’m still a bit puzzled by what game the Governor is playing.

It could be that he just hasn’t yet adjusted to his new role.    In various earlier incarnations he was chief economist for the National Bank and for Westpac.  In roles like that part of his job was to say to provocative stuff in an interesting way, to get coverage for him and his bank. Back in the spotlight now, with every serious media outlet only too happy to report his every word, perhaps he just hasn’t adjusted yet.   I find that a little hard to credit, for various reasons, including that he is 55 not 35, has already spent  eleven years as a public sector CEO, and that yesterday’s remarks weren’t the first time he’s overstepped.

Perhaps, too, he just sees no connection between the comments he makes on climate change, infrastructure finance, the Christchurch rebuild, PPPs etc and his day job.  But he’d have to be extraordinarily naive to believe that, and he isn’t.  His views are reported because he is the Governor, not as “Adrian Orr, citizen of Devenport [or wherever he now lives]”.  Another really senior unelected role is that of the Chief Justice: just think of the outrage if she were out giving speeches and interviews on all manner of political issues, unrelated to the administration of justice.   That is a measure of how wrong Orr’s current stance is –  and he wields more power personally than the Chief Justice.

And that leaves the even more unwelcome possibility that, in some sense, Orr is playing politics.   A former colleague put it to me the other day that “Orr is a political animal, par excellence”.   I’m sure he is only ever uttering his own genuinely-held views, and I’m not sure he is even that good a political player (on the evidence of the last few weeks) but look at his incentives.  The Governor has a huge number of turf battles to fight and win this year, around the various stages of the review of the Reserve Bank Act.    Will the Bank keep prudential responsibilities in house?  Even if so, will the policymaking powers stay with the Governor, move to a committee, or be removed back to the Minister?  What sort of people will be appointed to the new Monetary Policy Committee, and what sorts of constraints will the Minister put on their freedom to challenge the Governor?  Might tighter budgetary constraints be put on the Bank, or regular (properly-resourced)_ provisions for external reviews be established?   And so on.

And how to win those battles?  Good quality analysis and advice goes only so far.  Orr might reasonably conclude that things are more likely to go his way, if the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues (and parties outside Cabinet) smile benevolently on the Governor and think of him as “one of us”.

I’m not fully persuaded this is the bulk of the story either.  Orr has, after all, been a public servant for the last 15 years, and if his approach is all about political game-playing and seeking leverage with ministers, you’d have to think he’d have the art down pat better than the overtly political stuff on display in recent weeks.   There has to be a risk that, whatever his intentions, he has overstepped the mark so far and so often, so early, that at least some in government might be having a case of buyer’s remorse, wondering quite what they have got themselves into with this new Governor –  who might be “sound” ideologically, but seems to lack that deeper sort of soundness the nation should be able to count on.

Whatever the explanation, it needs to stop.

When there was speculation last year as to who might be the next Governor, one reason on my list of factors counting against Adrian Orr was precisely that he was a strong character, given to speaking his mind, and one whom the Board (and specifically the Board chair) might find hard to keep on a leash.  The same thought might, I speculated, worry a new Minister of Finance.    Of course, in the Board’s case it has become increasingly clear that they see themselves as facilitators for, and defenders of, the Governor, not needing to do anything to hold him to account.  But if they really care at all about the institution, and about good governance in New Zealand, they need to call the Governor to order now.

I noted earlier my surprise that the Opposition finance spokesperson had not commented on the way the Governor is operating.  Neither, it appears, has the Minister of Finance.   Perhaps it would be worth some journalist asking the Minister for his comments, even if only to record him refusing to comment, washing his hands of any responsibility (for the conduct of someone he appointed, in an agency he is responsible for).

The Governor is damaging himself, and he is damaging the institution.  It is early days and there is still time for a course correction, but it needs to happen now, and to be decisive.  It isn’t, after all, as if the Governor is without messes to clear up in his own areas of responsibility (eg here and here).  And leave politics –  including public finance, infrastructure, climate change or whatever  – to those we’ve elected.

(I have deliberately avoided engaging with the content of the Governor’s comments.  Even if I fully agreed with him, they would still be unwise and quite inappropriate, and it is the process point –  good governance – that matters most.)

UPDATE: I notice that issues about Orr’s remarks are beginning to be highlighted elsewhere.

UPDATE 2: Rereading the post I wrote when Orr’s appointment was first announced, there is nothing (positive or otherwise) in it I’d resile from now, and some of the potential areas of concern touched on then already seem to be being realised.

UPDATE 3: For those who don’t normally read the comments here, I suggest at least looking at the one by former Reserve Bank official, Geof Mortlock.

UPDATE 4:  The Minister of Finance has indeed refused to comment.

Revisiting the NZSF

There have plenty of stories in the last couple of days about the expressed wish of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund to become owner, or part-owner, of new light-rail projects.

There has been a range of reactions, from the gushingingly enthusiastic to the rather more sceptical.  Count me at the extremely sceptical end of that spectrum.  In fact, it is the sort of story that confirms – again – my longheld fears about NZSF.

Towards the gushing end of the spectrum was Stuff politics journalist Henry Cooke, whose piece ran under the heading “Super Fund gives huge vote of confidence to light rail plans”, when it is nothing of the sort.

This is a massive vote of confidence in the viability of the project from some of the savviest investors in the country.

But

Their proposal would see another huge sovereign wealth fund – Quebec’s – join them in a consortium to build, operate, and own the lines in perpetuity. Exactly how they would get a return on that investment is unclear at this point,

No doubt this is true

Politically this is already a win.

And even Cooke recognises the political nature of all this

By making a proposal on such a political project the Super Fund is making something of a political bet

Concluding that

For today though, this is a vote of confidence from the kind of person left-wing governments usually find it very hard to get votes from: high powered investors. They’ll take it with a smile.

I’m sure the government is delighted.  As their predecessors were when the NZSF and ACC teamed up –  off-market of course – to take part-ownership of Kiwibank, without actually providing any fresh expertise, and in the process reducing the transparency and accountability around (what is still 100% state-owned) Kiwibank.  But in the end these are votes of confidence from public servants, who know which side their bread is buttered on.

As I’ve written about here previously, NZSF aren’t great investment gurus.  They’ve made quite a lot of money taking big risks in a strongly rising global market, but the returns relative to risk, or to taxpayer’s cost of capital haven’t been particularly attractive and –  as even NZSF will acknowledge –  markets go down as well as up.   As for light-rail projects, the NZSF statement noted that around 2 per cent of the Fund is in infrastructure assets worldwide.  That doesn’t suggest any particular expertise in light-rail –  and they don’t point to any in the statement.   And almost any government project can be made viable for an investor if the associated contracts are skewed sufficiently favourably in the investor’s direction.

So this unsolicited (but no doubt welcome) expression of interest isn’t any sort of vote of confidence, and is probably better seen as a fishing expedition, doing what the Fund seems to be good at, playing politics.    Perhaps under the heading of “it is New Zealanders’ money” the NZSF can get a better deal from the government than others might (as NZSF and ACC presumably got a good value-transfer deal on Kiwibank, since no one else was allowed into the mix); perhaps the government might like the idea of an “arms-length” investor rather than putting in money directly and being directly accountable for the results.  Perhaps it will all come to nothing, but NZSF will have shown willing, and earned itself more political brownie points.

We also saw NZSF playing politics last year, with their decision to substantially reduce the carbon exposure in their portfolio.  Reasonable people might debate the economic merits of the judgement they took (I never found the arguments in the internal papers they released overly persuasive), but if it was simply an active management issue –  a bet on where markets would go over the next few years –  they’d have left their benchmarks unchanged, and enabled citizens to monitor risk and return on the punt they’d made.  They didn’t of course –  they claimed credit for the speculative call (which was no doubt popular with many voters, and with Labour/Greens –  and buried it in the benchmark itself, in ways that make it very hard for anyone to check whether it was a good economic call. I wonder if they are even monitoring it themselves, or whether they even care.

On the specifics of the latest NZSF initiative, my view was much closer to this

Retirement policy expert Michael Littlewood said he groaned inwardly at the news the Super Fund wanted to fund two new light rail networks.

He said light rail had a reputation for never finishing on time, cost over-runs and not making money unless it was subsidised by the taxpayer.

“Is this going to add to the security of New Zealand’s future payments of New Zealand Superannuation? I would have thought not.”

Littlewood said the Super fund was taxpayers’ money and if the rail was going to be paid for by taxpayers it should be done so directly.

“I’m not sure what the Super Fund adds to this process.”

Littlewood who co-authored a report last year that called for the fund to be dismantled, said private investments such as this would make that harder to do.

If there was ever a case for NZSF – something I’m not persuaded of (preferring the government to simply run down its debt, and leave investment risk-taking to citizens and private entities) – it had to involve scrupulously avoiding domestic politics.  It was the attraction of a passive approach to investment (hugging the respective indexes which –  among other things –  keeps costs down), mostly in offshore market.

Avoiding politics was always only going to become harder as the Fund got bigger.  I recall during the 2008/09 recession –  when the Fund was smaller than it is now –  the number of idealists and opportunists who were dreaming up schemes that the money in the NZSF could be steered towards.  It will be the same next time round, and the path NZS has been going down over the last few years of its own initiative –  Kiwibank, carbon, and now light rail –  will only increase the risk. And the pressures come from both sides.   People outside will badger governments and the Board/management with clever schemes.  On paper, NZSF is well-insulated.   But people in management and on the Board will have incentives to want to be well-regarded in the community, to be players, and to win and retain political allies.  For not many of them – Board or management –  will these not be the last jobs, last appointments, they are pursuing.   And if they can do it with sweetheart deals –  serving the interests of the government of the day, and of the Board/management but not necessarily the people of New Zealand – all the better for them individually: the return numbers can continue to be flattered, even though some of its returns to connections and to lobbying (often just a transfer among different taxpayer pockets, with lots of fees dripping off the side), not to raw investment expertise.

I’ve written in several recent posts about insights and arguments from the new book, Unelected Power, by former Bank of England Deputy Governor, Paul Tucker.  Tucker’s own expertise is in central banking, but part of the value of the book is in the way he seeks to develop a framework for thinking about the conditions under which it does, and doesn’t, make sense for government functions to be delegated to independent agencies, and the sorts of accountability mechanisms that need to be in place when such delegations are made.   Reflecting on Tucker’s delegation criteria, NZSF increasingly fails that test.

Tucker’s first criterion is whether the goal can be specified.  NZSF probably passes the test: the goal is something like maximising medium-term risk-adjusted returns.

But the second is more questionable:  “Society’s preferences are relatively stable and concern a major social cost”.   Even sticking to narrow business of investment, it isn’t clear that preferences are stable.  Sticking the money in, in effect, a big index fund is one thing, but plenty of people don’t (now) want carbon exposures, others don’t want whale exposures, others still won’t want weapons exposures, or tobacco exposures.  And others just won’t care.  (Views on NZS itself, of course, vary widely, even in the same political party from election to election.)

That relates to Tucker’s fourth criterion, that the independent agency will not have to make big choices on distributional trade-offs or society’s values, or that materially shift the distribution of political power.  When there is a big pot of money that politicians can quietly encourage their appointees to steer in ways that serve political ends, the case for independence is pretty weak.  No one is compelled of course, but it is a case of a double coincidence of desires.

The third criterion was “is there a problem credibly committing to a settled policy regime?”.  This was a key argument for an independent central bank.  It isn’t obviously an issue when it comes to an investment fund of this sort (where the amounts put into the Fund are determined politically).

The fourth criterion is not that relevant here: is there good reason to expect the policy instruments to work, with a relevant community of experts outside the institution.  Active management won’t make much money (if any) except by chance, but passive management can be expected to generate returns commensurate with the risk taken.  Unfortunately, of course, risk to the independent agency’s returns can be mitigated by within-government favourable deals.

The sixth criterion is that the legislature should have the capacity to oversee the independent agency’s stewardship adequately, and to assess whether the system is working adequately.  In almost no instance do our parliamentary committees provide the sort of effective scrutiny this sort of regime really requires for the cause of democratic legitimacy (a point I want to come back to on the Reserve Bank case).  NZSF doesn’t seem to be any sort of exception.

Politicians will make calls –  good and bad.  Often enough they will waste our money, perhaps with the best intentions in the world.  Sometimes they’ll do good with it.  But the key consideration there is that we can toss the politicians out –  or re-elect them if we reckon they are doing a good job.  We have no such ability to discipline the management or the Board of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund.  That is, of course, by design –  it is how the legislation is set up –  but it doesn’t make that design any more appropriate or legitimate.  And the behaviour of the Board/management indicates that this isn’t just a theoretical concern, but a practical one.  Anyone can see this light rail expression of interest as, in no small part, a political one –  even enthusiastic Henry Cooke recognised that.     That should be no business of an allegedly apolitical government agency, but the corrosive incentives –  such a big and growing pot of money to manage, so many vested interests keen to profit from dealing with the Fund –  seem to make it all but unavoidable.

We don’t need a New Zealand Superannuation Fund: the Crown has no vast stores of net financial wealth that need managing, the risk-adjusted returns are no better than average, and despite the name the Fund is just another pot of government funds, doing nothing for the affordability of public pensions.  All too much power –  over your money and mine –  is vested in the hands of people who themselves face little or no effective accountability, and such accountability as they may feel seems more often served by responding to the interests of governments of the day (of whichever stripe), or feel-good public moods.  Money-pots are dangerous things, in the hands of politicans or those who see their interests aligned to preferences of politicians.  As Michael Littlewood argues, and as I’ve argued previously  – it is past time to wind up the NZSF, using the assets to repay government debt.    If it is to be retained, the mandate should be revised to require them to stick closely to relatively liquid traded assets, and ones with little or no connection to New Zealand governments.

 

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.)

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. )

Is vapid rhetoric all our leaders can offer?

The Prime Minister gave what she billed as a “pre-Budget” speech yesterday to the leading business lobby group, Businss New Zealand.  It was, I’m pretty sure, her first prime ministerial speech mainly on economic matters.  In introducing her speech  she indicated that she would

outline our plans for the economy and how we want to partner with New Zealand businesses to bring about transformative change for the good of all New Zealanders.

and a few sentences later she added

We are committed to enabling a strong economy, to being fiscally responsible and to providing certainty. We have a clear focus on sustainable economic development, supporting regional economies, increasing exports, lifting wages and delivering greater fairness in our society.

But in the rest of the speech there was almost nothing there.   There were slogans, and feel-good phrases.  But there was no plans for the economy.  No plans to lift productivity –  a point she touched on not infrequently during the election campaign –  and barely even an acknowledgement of the problem, no plans to reverse the decline in the export/import shares of GDP in New Zealand, and no sign that she –  or her advisers or her Minister of Finance –  have a serious well thought-through story of how New Zealand ended up underperforming as badly as it has done, let alone how we might reverse the underperformance.

Governments of both political parties deserve credit for keeping the government’s finances more or less in order.  As I noted yesterday, that is more than most large OECD countries have managed in recent decades.  But it isn’t a substitute for policies that might finally offer a credible path out of the 70 years of relative economic decline –  drifting a bit further behind even as every country is richer than it was – that New Zealand has experienced.

Instead, we get attempts to shift the goalposts, aided and abetted by The Treasury.

On that score how we measure our success is important. In the past we have used economic growth as a sign of success. And yet a generation of New Zealanders can no longer afford a home. Some of our kids are growing up living in cars. Our levels of child poverty and homelessness in this country are much too high.

We all want a strong economy. But why do we want it? What is it for? It is vital that we remember the true purpose of having a strong economy is for us all to have better lives.

Well, sure.  GDP isn’t an end in itself, but it (and cognate measures) are a pretty important means to those ends, and a reflection of how well a society is providing for itself.    And how does the Prime Minister suppose that the crushing specifics of (New Zealand) poverty 100 years ago –  when New Zealand was the richest country on earth – became largely non-existent today?  By achieving sustained productivity growth.   And if we now score badly on some of the poverty indicator measures, it isn’t entirely surprising when productivity (real GDP per hour worked) isn’t even two-thirds of that in countries like France, Germany, the United States, and the Netherlands.  When it now also lags well behind Australia too.

In her speech, she claims that her plans are already clear

We have already spelled out our ambitious agenda to improve the wellbeing and living standards of New Zealanders through sustainable, productive and inclusive growth.  Now we want to work with business and investors to get on with it and to deliver shared prosperity for all.

and

We will encourage the economy to flourish, but not at the expense of damaging our sovereignty, our natural resources or people’s well-being. Our plans have been spelled out from the beginning, in the Speech from the Throne, in the first 100-days plan, and very soon you will see more detail in our first Budget.   ……

You will see a clear plan to build a robust, more resilient economy. You will see a strong focus on delivering economic growth, on running sustainable surpluses and reducing net debt as a proportion of GDP.

 

There was little of substance on this score in the Speech from the Throne.  And much as I wish it were otherwise, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for the “clear plan” for stronger sustained real economic (and productivity) growth in the Budget.  There is nothing in anything the government has said so far that suggests they or their advisers really grasp the issues.     Quite why simply wishing businesses would “get on with it” would now be expected to produce better outcomes than we’ve seen in recent decades is a bit beyond me.

Of course, there are nods in the direction of things Labour (or their partners believe in)

My Government is keen to future-proof our economy, to have both budget sustainability and environmental sustainability, to prepare people for climate change and the fact that 40 percent of today’s jobs will not exist in a few decades.

I’d love to see some data on what proportion of jobs that existed 40 years ago don’t exist today (the majority of the jobs that existed in the Reserve Bank I joined in 1983 don’t exist any more).  But while the government worries about work –  setting up a new tripartite forum involving the CTU and Business New Zealand – actual employment rates don’t seem to be the problem.

E rates by age

(Lack of) productivity is.   It is productivity growth that underpins any long-term growth in real incomes and living standards.

There is talk of skills, when OECD data have shown that New Zealander workers have some of the highest levels of skills anywhere in the OECD (indeed, the chair of the Productivity Commission was retweeting an OECD chart to that effect just a few days ago).

There is talk that “no-one has the same job for life any more”.  Perhaps, but there is data overseas suggesting that average length of time with a single employer is little different now than it was 30 years ago.

There is talk of “lifting R&D spending”, and the government has out for consultation at present its plan for new R&D subsidies, but no sense that the Prime Minister or her advisers have thought at all hard about why firms might not have found it worthwhile to do more R&D spending (or why, by contrast, firms in some rich countries with no R&D subsidies do a great deal).

There was lot of rhetoric

Business can be assured that this Government will support those who produce goods and services, export and provide decent jobs for New Zealanders.

But little substance, and nothing that shows signs of pulling it all together into a coherent narrative.

And, for all the mentions of climate change and related issues, nothing at all about how faster overall productivity growth –  and a stronger export/import orientation –  might be achieved in the face her government’s commitments to sharply reducing net emissions in a country with high marginal abatement costs.  “High marginal abatement costs” has meaning: it costs to do this stuff, and the cost is likely to be reflected in lower levels of economic activity (and productivity) than otherwise.  Perhaps the government disagrees –  and perhaps her audience were too polite to challenge her –  but there is nothing in the speech suggesting she has thought hard about squaring that circle.  There seems to be lots of wishful thinking, and not much substance.

And then there were “the regions”

And the regions need not fear they will be neglected. We have committed $1 billion per annum towards the new Provincial Growth Fund and over coming months there will be more detail about how this spending will be targeted. After all, nearly half of us live outside our main cities and our provinces also need to thrive if New Zealand is to do well.

The Provincial Growth Fund aims to enhance economic development opportunities, create sustainable jobs, contribute to community well-being, lift the productivity potential of regions, and help meet New Zealand’s climate change targets.

There might be a bit of a lolly scramble, redistributing the current cake.  But there is nothing from the government, or from the architects of the PGF –  and nothing in the announcements to data (eg here and here) suggesting that the government has any concept of how overall productivity growth rates, nationwide or in the regions, might be lifted.  (And not once was the real exchange rate mentioned.)

Perhaps defenders of the government would push back on one or another point.  But there is no sign of any sort of integrated narrative –  a rich understanding of how we got to our current sustained underperformance or, reflecting that, how might hope to reverse the decline.  No doubt in an attempt to woo her business audience, there weren’t even any references to tax system changes (CGT and all that) in this economic speech.

Perhaps that isn’t entirely the government’s fault.  The Treasury seems at sea as well.  But we don’t elect bureaucrats, and we do elect governments.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to be misinterpreted as suggesting that the Opposition was any less bad.  The new Leader of the Opposition also gave his first economic speech this week.   There were a few bits where I was nodding my head as I read

Labour and NZ First are more focused on government intervention. They believe they know how to run your businesses better than you do.

Shane Jones’ $1 billion Provincial Growth Fund is a good example. It’s terrible policy.

Now I’m sure there are some worthy projects that will get funded. But it will shift businesses from focusing on becoming more productive to chasing a subsidy from Matua Shane.

That’s not how to drive long-term productivity improvements.

Couldn’t disagree, but what did Bridges have to offer

When I was Economic Development Minister, our plan for the economy was set out in the Business Growth Agenda.

The BGA comprised over 500 different initiatives all designed to make it easier to do business by investing in infrastructure, removing red tape, and helping Kiwis develop the skills needed in a modern economy.

Some of those were big, some were small. I’ll admit some weren’t as exciting spending a billion dollars every year.

But together they were effective.

New Zealand has one of the best performing economies in the developed world.

500 initiatives and we still had barely any productivity growth in the last five years.  And, as I recall, one of the BGA goals was a big increase in the export (and, presumably, import) share of GDP: those shares have actually been shrinking.  Productivity levels languish miles behind the better advanced economis, and the gaps showed no sign of closing.

He ends

New Zealand is a great country. And if we maintain our direction and momentum of recent years we can make it even better for our kids.

Moving into opposition is a chance for National to look at our position on certain issues, and understand the things that New Zealanders want us to focus on.

Although the one thing I hope you’ll take from my speech is we won’t be changing our focus on the economy.

If we don’t start seeing a lot more hard-headed thinking –  and a quite material change of direction – from our political leaders and their advisers, a country that really was once the best place in the world to bring up kids, will increasingly be a country where wise parents can only counsel their kids that if they want first world living standards, the best option is to leave.     In my lifetime, 970000 (net) have already done so.  The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition –  representing two sides of the same coin when it comes to our economic failure – are younger than me, but in just the 37 years the Prime Minister has lived, a net 780000 of our fellow New Zealanders have left.   Outflows of that scale – which, of course, ebb and flow with short-term developments in Australia and here –  just don’t happen in normal, successful, countries.