Misleading?

Back in mid-December, the Reserve Bank fronted up to Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee for the Annual Review hearing on the Bank. I wrote about it here. You may recall that this was the appearance where (a) the Bank (unsuccessfully) tried to kept secret before the hearing the loss of another couple of senior managers, and (b) seemed to mislead the Committee on just how many of their senior managers had gone or were going. In the wake of it, the Governor forced the early departure of his deputy Geoff Bascand a couple of weeks before he was due to leave anyway, over unauthorised contact with the media [CORRECTION: “shared information to a third party”] (most likely over those two new senior management departures).

But towards the end of the hearing (about 50 minutes in here) there was a brief exchange on matters climate change, with an unusually clear and unconditional answer from the Governor. Here was my December account

The study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York is here, and a Wall St Journal write-up is here. Here is the abstract

Which seems plausible and not very surprising. But it is just one working paper, on one aspect, and I’m not here to praise or critique the paper. My interest is in the Reserve Bank, and Orr’s response. “Yes”, he said, they certainly had done modelling of their own.

This is the Bank’s own climate change page. Even now, two months on, the only thing they are showing under Research Papers is this (their own words) preliminary analysis of some of the issues, dated July 2018 a few months after Orr had taken office. This was from the summary of that paper

So, I lodged an OIA request that day asking for copies of the modelling the Governor has been referring to, and of any write-ups of it. One might have supposed they would be keen to air it, but it still took them until 10 February to respond. They say they intend to put it on their website eventually, but it still isn’t on either the climate change or OIA responses page. So the full document is here

Climate change modelling OIA response from RBNZ Feb 2022

The first part of the response is a long (three page) letter, obviously attempting to provide some framing for what does (and particularly does not) follow.  Their Senior Adviser, Government and Industry Relations assures me that 

The RBNZ’s view is that there are significant climate-related risks for the New Zealand economy and financial system. This means that we consider that sectors of New Zealand’s economy will be at risk of being affected by physical risks, such as drought, flooding and sea level rise, and transition risks, such as international and national changes in policy/regulation, trade, investment and consumer preference. We consider that it is inevitable that policies and conditions will change in response to this global challenge, and that New Zealand’s economy will be affected and changed by these global and national changes. New Zealand banks and their international counterparts have set up teams to monitor and understand these risks and to respond as necessary.

While we are certain that there will be changes in the economy and financial system resulting from climate change and actions to mitigate climate change, the degree to which risks apply to financial stability will depend on a number of factors including how risks are understood and managed. New Zealand banks and their international counterparts have set up teams to monitor and understand these risks and to respond as necessary. 

At which point, I’m drumming my fingers and going “yes, so you say, but my question was about the modelling the Governor assured Parliament had been done”.

There then followed a 15 page memorandum, dated 13 October 2021, to one of the Bank’s internal committees on “Prioritisation of climate-related risks for financial stability analysis”. It is mildly interesting

So it seems that they intend to do some work, but haven’t done anything very serious yet. This is their own summary

and

The only thing the Bank itself seemed to have done was this

The rest of the OIA release consisted of 15 pages of a Powerpoint presentation (from July 2021) on that dairy scenario, reporting work undertaken jointly with MPI (the Ministry for Primary Industries). Much of the presentation is withheld, and we really learn nothing from it beyond what is in that extract just above. None of this appears to have been independently reviewed, none of it has been published, and the Bank’s own description (see quote above) is that there is “very little” New Zealand research on the (possible) threat to the financial system. All we have is a statement of the fairly blindingly obvious: a serious drought out of the blue (as 2013 was) combined with low dairy prices – an unusual combination given that earlier Bank research found that New Zealand droughts tended to boost global dairy prices, but not impossible – would result in some losses to banks’ dairy loan books. And? It sheds no light at all on risks to the New Zealand economy and financial system as a whole, and especially not from climate change – a multi-decade process.

To be clear, I don’t think the Reserve Bank should be spending lots of scarce taxpayers’ money (well, not scarce to them given how lavish their funding now is) on modelling climate change risks, at least not without a great deal more serious robust international analysis suggesting that there was a substantive issue/risk emerging. But it is the Reserve Bank that holds forth on the issue, asserting the existence of a threat….and, it appears, it has done almost no work itself, in a New Zealand context, to support its handwaving.

For anyone interested in reading further, I can recommend a couple of pieces by Ian Harrison – who would no doubt have been heavily involved in this sort of stuff were he still at the Bank. The first, from October 2021, is on Climate Change and Risks to Financial Stability more generally. The second, from January this year,

Did the Governor actively mislead Parliament with his answer in December?   At very best, it looks borderline.  As is clear, from the OIA release and the Bank’s own papers, what little semi-formal work has been done to date sheds very little light of anything of interest, despite repeated claims by the Bank and the Governor about alleged “significant” financial system risks. 

A deteriorating institution

I write a lot here about issues around the Reserve Bank. Some of those issues are quite obscure or abstract, and I know some readers find some of those posts/arguments a bit of a challenge to grasp.

But yesterday we had as straightforward an example as (I hope) we are ever likely to find.

Inflation is very much in focus at present. Measure of inflation expectations get more attention than usual. There is a variety of measures, both surveys (in New Zealand mostly conducted for the Reserve Bank and by ANZ) and market prices. The Reserve Bank has been surveying households for 27 years, with a fairly consistent (although expanded on a couple of occasions) range of questions. At the Bank there was always a degree of scepticism about the survey – household respondents always seemed (eg) to expect inflation to be quite a lot higher than it actually was – but it was one more piece in the jigsaw, and if one couldn’t put much weight on the absolute responses, changes over time did seem to line with what households might be supposed to be feeling/fearing.

Of the questions, probably the one least hard for households to answer seemed to be the fairly simple one

No numbers needed, just something directional. We have 27 years of data.

The latest results of the survey came out yesterday. The Bank puts out a little write-up and posts the data in a spreadsheet on their website. Yesterday, the write-up didn’t mention this question at all, but the spreadsheet suggested that a net 95.7% of respondents expected inflation to increase over the next 12 months. That seemed like it should be a little troubling, given how high the inflation rate already is.

Except that……it turned out that the Reserve Bank had changed the question, without telling anyone, without marking a series break or anything. The new question is

And that is a totally different question. The old question is about whether inflation will increase or decrease, while the new one is about whether there will be inflation or deflation. At almost any time in the 88 year history of the Bank it would not be newsworthy if 95.7 per cent of people expected there to be inflation. There almost always is.

It isn’t necessarily a silly question in its own right (on rare occasions there are deflation “scares”) but (a) it is a much less useful question most of the time than the question that had been asked and answered for 27 years, and (b) you can’t just present the answers to one questions as much the same thing as the answer to the other. Especially when not telling users of the data.

It was real amateur-hour stuff. Now, in fairness to the Bank, there is a detailed account of the changed questions on the website, but when there was no hint that question had changed there was no motive to go on a detective hunt to find it.

The Bank tells us they have had a 38 per cent increase in the number of senior management positions in the last year, with no increase in the things they are responsible for, and they can’t even get fairly basic things like this right. They’ve destroyed the single most useful question in the survey, and right at the time when every shred of information on attitudes to inflation should be precious. And then seemed barely even to be aware of what they’d done – presenting the answers to two quite different questions as if they were in fact very much the same.

There were a few people yesterday suggesting it was some nefarious plot to reduce access to awkward data at an difficult time. I don’t believe that for a moment – although for wider peace of mind I have lodged an OIA request to confirm (and to find out whether, for example, MPC members even knew of the change). This was a stuff-up pure and simple, which management and senior management (for which the Governor is accountable) should never have allowed to happen. High functioning organisations don’t make stuff-ups like this.

Which is a convenient lead in to an article published this morning.

About five weeks ago Stuff’s business editor asked if I’d like to write a column for them on the Reserve Bank under Adrian Orr. I did so (a few days later) and the final version appeared this morning. I only had 800 words, and there was a lot of ground one could have covered, so much of the story has to be very compressed (and quite a few problem areas left out altogether). You can read the final Stuff version here, or the text I originally wrote is below. Were I writing it now rather than a month ago, I would put more weight on the inflation story – core inflation now having blasted through the top of the target range – but I wanted to distinguish between forecasting mistakes (which are somewhat inevitable, and the best central banks will make them) and things that are much more directly within the control of the Governor, the Board, and the Minister of Finance.

Alarming Decline

By Michael Reddell

Over the four years Adrian Orr has been Reserve Bank Governor, this powerful institution, once highly-regarded internationally but already on the slide under his predecessor, has been spiralling downwards.  The failings have been increasingly evident over the last couple of years.  Here I can touch briefly on only a few of the growing number of concerns.

One can’t criticise the Reserve Bank too much for running monetary policy based on an outlook for inflation and the economy that, even if wrong, was shared by most other forecasters. Until late 2020 the general view of the economic consequences of the Covid disruptions had been quite bleak. Notably, inflation was widely expected to be very low for several years.  The Bank got that wrong, and so inflation (even the core measures) has been a lot higher than expected.  If they were going to err – after 10 years of inflation undershooting the target – it may have been the less-bad mistake to have made.  But they have been slow to reverse themselves – the OCR today is still lower than it was two years ago – and slower to explain.

The Bank is much more culpable for the straightforward lack of preparedness and robust planning.  Orr had been quite open, pre-Covid, that he wasn’t keen on big bond-buying programmes, and if necessary preferred to use negative interest rates.  But when Covid hit it turned out that the Reserve Bank had done nothing to ensure that commercial bank systems could cope with a negative OCR.  They couldn’t.  So instead, as if keen to be seen to be doing something, the Bank lurched into buying more than $50 billion of government bonds.  Buying assets at the top of the market is hugely risky and rarely makes much sense, but the Bank kept on buying well into 2021.  As interest rates rise, bond prices fall. The accumulated losses to the taxpayer are now around $5 billion ($1000 per person, simply gone).  And yet the Bank has never published its background analysis or risk assessment, it offers up no robust evidence that anything of any sustained value was accomplished, and the Governor refuses to even engage on the huge losses.

What of the new Monetary Policy Committee itself?  From the start the Governor and the Minister agreed that anyone with current expertise in monetary policy issues would be excluded from the Committee.  For the minority of outside appointments, a willingness to go along quietly seems to have been more important than expertise or independence of thought.  Meanwhile, staff (Orr and three others who owe their jobs to him) make up a majority of the Committee.  Minutes of the Committee are published but deliberately disclose little of substance, there is no individual accountability, and four of the seven MPC members have not given even a single published speech in the almost three years the Committee has been operating.  Speeches given by the senior managers rarely if ever reach the standard expected in most other advanced countries.  Meanwhile, the in-house research capability which should help underpin policy and communications has been gutted.

And then there is the constant churn of senior managers.  In some cases, people who were first promoted by Orr have since been restructured out by him.  In just the last few months, the departures have been announced – not one of them to another job – of four of the five most senior people in the Reserve Bank’s core policy areas: the Deputy Governor, the chief economist, and the two department heads responsible for financial regulation and bank supervision.   It isn’t a sign of an institution in fine good health. 

And all this has unfolded even as total staff numbers have blown out, supported by the bloated budget the government has given the Governor.   Orr often seems more interested in things he has no legal responsibility for than in the handful of (sometimes dull but) important things Parliament has specifically charged the Bank with.  Perhaps worse, he has a reputation for being thin-skinned: not interested in genuine diversity of views or at all tolerant of dissent, internally or externally.  One might just tolerate that in a commanding figure of proven intellectual depth, judgement, and operational excellence, but Orr has exemplified none of those qualities.

How to sum things up?  Lack of preparedness, lack of rigour and intellectual depth, lack of viewpoint diversity, lack of accountability, lack of transparency, lack of management depth, lack of open engagement, and lack of institutional memory.  It is quite a list.  The Governor is primarily responsible for this dismal record of a degraded institution but it is the Minister of Finance who is responsible for the Governor.

This really is a matter of ministerial responsibility.

Finally, earlier in the week I wrote a post here about expertise and the Monetary Policy Committee in which, among other things, I lamented again the absurd policy adopted three years ago by Adrian Orr, the Bank’s Board, and the Minister of Finance, excluding from consideration for (external) MPC positions anyone with any ongoing systematic interest in macroeconomics or monetary policy. This morning Jenee Tibshraeny of interest.co.nz had a new article focused on that restriction. She has comments from various economists, the only one sort of defending it one who was adviser in Robertson’s office at the time the restriction – one without parallel in any other advanced country central bank – was put on, but had also asked Robertson and the Bank (Orr or Quigley or both?) whether the same restriction would be applied to filling the upcoming vacancies.

It should be incredible, literally unbelievable, if we had not seen so much from Robertson and Orr over recent years careless of the reputation, capability or outcomes of the Bank. As it is, it is just depressingly awful. One hopes – probably idly – that the Opposition political parties might think it an issue worth addressing. After all, not only are qualified people with an ongoing analytical etc interest in monetary policy excluded from the external MPC positions, but the latest appointment to an internal position (by Orr, Quigley and his board, and Robertson in concert) suggests the bias against actual expertise and knowledge might now be being extended to encompass executive roles.

Expertise and the MPC

I’m yielding to no one in my low view of the Reserve Bank Monetary Policy Committee. I’ve been writing about the problems – structural and personal – since the new Potemkin-village model (designed to look shiny and new, but to change little) was set up three years ago, and it was (for example) one of my Official Information Act requests that got the written confirmation that the Minister, Governor and the Bank’s Board had formally agreed that no one with ongoing expertise in monetary policy or macroeconomics, or likely future interest in researching such matters, would be appointed (as an external member) to the new Monetary Policy Committee (three relevant posts here, here, and here). It was a simply extraordinary exclusion, which reflected very poorly on all involved, but which never seemed to get the scrutiny from media or MPs that it deserved. In no other modern central bank would such an approach be adopted.

But, for all that, I thought Eric Crampton’s op-ed in the Herald today overbalanced in the opposite direction. The column is behind a paywall, so I’m not going to quote extensively, but the gist seemed to be that you need a PhD in macroeconomics AND to be actively engaged in ongoing research to serve on the MPC. Crampton and an Otago university academic then report the results of a little survey they’d run of New Zealand academic macroeconomists to find out who those people thought should be appointed to the MPC, when the terms of two of the current externals expire shortly. It wasn’t noted that the most favoured candidate – one of the incumbents, Bob Buckle – does not have a PhD in macroeconomics, and has presumably taken a self-denying ordinance not to do any relevant research or analysis now or in the future (or otherwise he’d fall foul of the exclusionary rule, see above).

I don’t want to run commentary on all the individuals reported on. One or two might well be excellent additions, one or two would probably be dreadful, but none should be disqualified in advance simply because they might keep thinking about the issues, or writing about them in future. Even if the pickings are fairly slim, that far I agree (strongly) with Crampton. Of course, at present none of it probably matters much as management enjoys a permanent majority on the MPC, and the Orr/Robertson approach has been to prevent external members from speaking in public or even having their views recorded in the minutes. Three years sightseeing aside, it is difficult to know why really able people would seek, or accept, appointment at present. Management appointees matter much more, and the most recent appointment – the new executive deputy in charge of macro and monetary policy, with not a shred of relevant experience – suggests things are heading in the wrong direction there too.

But I think the “cult of the PhD” can be carried too far, at least when it comes to policy roles (as distinct from, say, staffing the Economics Departments of our universities). Don Brash had one, but had been primarily a banker and intellectually curious as he was (and is) had no demonstrated ongoing interest or expertise in macroeconomic research. Alan Bollard had one. Graeme Wheeler didn’t. But little or nothing about how well or badly those individuals did their jobs – and reasonable people may debate each – came down to how complex an NBER paper they could each critique (let alone produce). I’ve noted several times over the years that of the Reserve Bank’s chief economists over my working life, about half had PhDs and half did not. But there was no obvious correlation between those who did (or didn’t) and effectiveness or intellectual energy. Some (one?) of the best did, some (two?) of the best didn’t, but one who did was almost surely the worst of them. In English-influenced countries even 30-40 years ago it wasn’t particularly common for even the most able people to pursue PhDs unless they wanted an academic career. A couple of the more published researchers at the Reserve Bank in the last decade or so either didn’t have a PhD, or got one only rather belatedly (having already published quite a bit).

Or we could look around the world. Alan Greenspan was an economist but didn’t have a PhD (Update: thanks to the reader who pointed out that he acquired one well into his policy career). Jay Powell was a lawyer and private equity executive. Glenn Stevens, the previous RBA Governor, seemed to do a pretty reasonable job, and had neither a PhD nor a research track record. I’m not a great Lagarde fan, but she’s a lawyer and politician. Andrew Bailey has a PhD – in history – but spent his career in banking-oriented roles at the Bank of England. On the other hand, Phil Lowe, Mark Carney, Ben Bernanke, and Stefan Ingves have economics PhDs, even if not always with much sign of ongoing research interest.

Which is by way of saying that despite my many criticisms of Adrian Orr, the fact that he doesn’t have a PhD doesn’t bother me in the slightest. And the fact that Caroline Saunders – another of the independents – has one, if in quite unrelated areas of economics, allays not in the slightest my concern about the weakness (and tokenism) of her appointment.

A parallel I sometimes draw with the MPC is with the Cabinet. As Crampton notes, the MPC makes decisions that are final. So, in many areas, does the Cabinet (and often individual ministers). Very rarely do we expect the Prime Minister or Cabinet ministers to be professional technical experts in any of the areas they are minister for, let alone with the whole ambit of policies for which Cabinet is responsible. It often isn’t even helpful to have had a health expert as Minister of Health, and I’m pretty sure that in all New Zealand’s history we’ve never had an economist as Minister of Finance (nor is it common in parliamentary systems elsewhere). That isn’t a problem. We expect there to be a distinction between professional and technically-expert advisers on the one hand, and decisionmakers on the other. When either group tries to do the job of the other, or the advisory expertise is lacking, things run into difficulty.

[UPDATE: Bill Rowling, Minister of Finance 1972-74, did have an economics degree.]

The parallel with the MPC isn’t exact. We want the Cabinet to be making intrinsically “political” calls, about preferences, priorities, values etc. But we also want them to be judicious people – not unduly swayed by the latest whizz-bang research paper or think-tank idea, or the latest data point. We want/need them to be thinking about communications, public acceptability and so on.

So I’m not suggesting an MPC made up of the first 10 names in the Wellington phone book, or a bunch of pleasant (or otherwise) political hacks. But there is a place for a balanced committee, served by a highly expert staff (research, analytical, policy, markets, operational – all quite different components of what a capable monetary policy function needs). It seems quite likely that some of those roles would these days naturally be filled by people with PhDs – key figures in the research functions, most often perhaps the Chief Economist – but technical research virtuosity (of the sort a highly productive PhD may still offer – many do, many don’t) is just one, important, part of the relevant set of skills. Even in that sort of area, a passion to make sense of what is going on, to interpret evidence and data carefully, to be open to new ideas and fresh perspectives, seem to me to be what we should be looking for. Qualifications aren’t irrelevant, but qualities matter at least as much. And in an MPC that is dominated by management (which also controls all the staff resources), the willingness to think independently and ask hard but realistic questions, to engage effectively with experiences in other times and other countries, are what are likely to add most value. Some functioning academic researchers may be able to do that well, and their particular talents and experience should add value to the Committee. But so, far example, might someone who’d spent decades at the interface of economics and financial markets, or even – and one wouldn’t want this type dominating the Committee – the sort of classic old-school corporate director who is not afraid to ask questions when things don’t make sense, and who may act as a really effective test for how well the expert arguments, analysis, and lines of reasoning may be received in wider public audiences (I can think of a couple of these types who were on the RB Board in years past). Temperament is often at least as important as virtuosity. And effective public communications – not always an academic (or bureaucratic) strength – is vital.

Of course, the bottom line at present is that almost every dimension of the Reserve Bank (and particularly its macro/monetary functions) is weak: little research, little transparency, weak senior management appointments, a Governor with the wrong temperament for the job, an MPC structured to be ineffective, and weak appointees to the MPC. The ban on people with ongoing research interests – almost laughably bad as it is – is more like a symptom of a weak institution…..and a Minister of Finance who seems just fine with all that. And not even, it seems, bothered when core inflation bursts out the top of the target range.

UPDATE: I’d been aware that several of the top figures at the Bank of England in recent decades, including Eddie George and Paul Tucker, had not had PhDs (the latter having gone on to write a very serious book about central bank governance etc), but when I wrote the post I’d been labouring under the impression that the most prominent and eminent such figure – Mervyn King – had had a PhD. A reader got in touch to point out that he hadn’t. I’ve disagreed with many of King’s views, including in posts here, but no one can doubt that he was (and is) a figure of considerable intellectual eminence and thoughtfulness, whose speeches (for example) read well and make one think. He would seem ideally suited for an MPC.

Forecasting and policy mistakes

Yesterday’s post was a bit discursive. Sometimes writing things down helps me sort out what I think, and sometimes that takes space.

Today, a few more numbers to support the story.

I’m going to focus on what the experts in the macroeconomic agencies (Treasury and Reserve Bank) were thinking in late 2020, and contrast that with the most recent published forecasts. The implicit model of inflation that underpins this is that even if the full effects of monetary policy probably take 6-8 quarters to appear in (core) inflation, a year’s lead time is plenty enough to have begun to make inroads.

Forecasts – and fiscal numbers – in mid 2020 were, inevitably all over the place. But by November 2020 (the Bank published its MPS in November, and the Treasury will have finalised the HYEFU numbers in November) things had settled down again, and the projections and forecasts were able to be made – amid considerable uncertainty – with a little more confidence. And the government was able to take a clearer view on fiscal policy. The Treasury economic forecasts in the 2020 HYEFU incorporated the future government fiscal policy intentions conveyed to them by the Minister of Finance. The Reserve Bank’s forecasts did not directly incorporate those updated fiscal numbers, but…..the Reserve Bank and The Treasury were working closely together, the Secretary to the Treasury was a non-voting member of the Monetary Policy Committee, and so on. And, as we shall see, the Bank’s key macroeconomic forecasts weren’t dramatically different from Treasury’s.

The National Party has focused a lot of its critique on government spending. Here are the core Crown expenses numbers from three successive HYEFUs.

expenses $bn

From the last pre-Covid projections there was a big increase in planned spending. But by HYEFU 2020 – 15 months ago – Treasury already knew about the bulk of that and included it in their macro forecasts. By HYEFU 2021 the average annual spending for the last three years had increased further. But so had the price level – and quite a bit of government spending is formally (and some informally) indexed.

Here are the same numbers expressed as a share of GDP.

expenses % of GDP

By HYEFU 2021 the government’s spending plans for those last three years averaged a smaller share of GDP than Treasury had thought they would be a year earlier. (The numbers bounce around from year to year with, mainly, the uncertain timing of lockdowns etc).

There are two sides to any fiscal outcomes – spending and revenue. The government has been raising tax rates consciously and by allowing fiscal drag to work, such that tax revenue as a share of GDP, even later in the forecasts, is higher than The Treasury thought in November 2020. And here are the fiscal balance comparisons.

obegal

Average fiscal deficits – a mix of structural and automatic stabiliser factors – are now expected to be smaller (all else equal, less pressure on demand) than was expected in late 2020.

Fiscal policy just hasn’t changed very much since late 2020, and the fiscal intentions of the government then were already in the macro forecasts. Had those macro forecasts suggested something nastily inflationary, perhaps the government could have chosen to rethink.

But they didn’t. Here are the inflation and unemployment forecasts from successive HYEFUs.

macro forecasts tsy

In late 2020, The Treasury told us (and ministers) that they expected to hang around the bottom end of the target range for the following three years, with unemployment lingering at what should have been uncomfortably high levels. If anything, on those numbers, more macroeconomic stimulus might reasonably have been thought warranted.

There were huge forecasting mistakes, even given a fiscal policy stance that didn’t change much and was well-flagged.

That was The Treasury. But the Reserve Bank and its MPC are charged with keeping inflation near 2 per cent, and doing what they can to keep unemployment as low as possible. For them, fiscal policy is largely something taken as given, but incorporated into the forecasts.

Their (November 2020_ unemployment rate forecasts were a bit less pessimistic than The Treasury’s, but still proved to be miles off. This is what they were picking.

RB U forecasts

And here were the Bank’s November 2020 inflation forecasts, alongside their most recent forecasts.

rb inflation forcs

Not only were their forecasts for the first couple of years even lower than The Treasury’s, but even two years ahead their core inflation view was barely above 1 per cent. (The Bank forecasts headline inflation rather than a core measure, but over a horizon as long as two years ahead neither the Bank nor anyone else has any useful information on the things that may eventually put a temporary wedge between core and headline.) All these forecasts included something very much akin to government fiscal policy as it now stands. Seeing those numbers, the government might also reasonably have thought that more macroeconomic stimulus was warranted.

As a reminder the best measure of core inflation – the bit that domestic macro policy should shape/drive – is currently at 3.2 per cent.

core infl and target

There were really huge macroeconomic forecasting mistakes made by both the Reserve Bank and The Treasury, and – so it is now clear – policy mistakes made by the Bank/MPC. You might think some of those mistakes are pardonable – highly unsettled and uncertain times, not dissimilar surprises in other countries etc – and I’m not here going to take a particular view.

But of all the things Treasury and the Bank had to allow for in their forecasts, fiscal policy – wise or not, partly wasteful or not – just wasn’t one of the big unknowns, and hasn’t changed markedly in the period after those (quite erroneous) late 2020 macro forecasts were being done.

I guess one can always argue that if fiscal policy had subsequently been tightened, inflation would have been a bit lower. But Parliament decided that inflation – keeping it to target – is the Reserve Bank’s job. The government bears ultimate responsibility for how the Bank operates in carrying out that mandate – the Minister has veto rights on all the key appointees (and directly appoints some), dismissal powers, and the moral suasion weight of his office – but that is about monetary policy, not fiscal policy or government spending,

Inflation

The National Party, in particular, has been seeking to make the rate of inflation a key line of attack on the government. Headline annual CPI inflation was 5.9 per cent in the most recent release, and National has been running a line that government spending is to blame. It is never clear how much they think it is to blame – or even in what sense – but it must be to a considerable extent, assuming (as I do) that they are addressing the issue honestly.

I’ve seen quite a bit of talk that government spending (core Crown expenses) is estimated to have risen by 68 per cent from the June 2017 year (last full year of the previous government) to the June 2022 year – numbers from the HYEFU published last December. That is quite a lot: in the previous five years, this measure of spending rose by only 11 per cent. Of course, what you won’t see mentioned is that government spending is forecast to drop by 6 per cent in the year to June 2023, consistent with the fact that there were large one-off outlays on account of lockdowns (2020 and 2021), not (forecast) to be repeated.

But there is no question but that government spending now accounts for a larger share of the economy than it did. Since inflation was just struggling to get up towards target pre-Covid, and I’m not really into partisan points-scoring, lets focus on the changes from the June 2019 year (last full pre-Covid period). Core Crown expenses were 28 per cent of GDP that year, and are projected to be 35.3 per cent this year, and 30.5 per cent in the year to June 2023 (nominal GDP is growing quite a bit). That isn’t a tiny change, but…..it is quite a lot smaller than the drop in government spending as a share of GDP from 2012 to 2017. I haven’t heard National MPs suggesting their government’s (lack of) spending was responsible for inflation undershooting over much of that decade – and nor should they because (a) fiscal plans are pretty transparent in New Zealand and (b) it is the responsibility of the Reserve Bank to respond to forecast spending (public and private) in a way that keeps inflation near target. The government is responsible for the Bank, of course, but the Bank is responsible for (the persistent bits of) inflation.

The genesis of this post was yesterday morning when my wife came upstairs and told me I was being quoted on Morning Report. The interviewer was pushing back on Luxon’s claim that government spending was to blame for high inflation, suggesting that I – who (words to the effect of) “wasn’t exactly a big fan of the government” – disagreed and believed that monetary policy was responsible. I presume the interviewer had in mind my post from a couple of weeks back, and I then tweeted out this extract

I haven’t taken a strong view on which factors contributed to the demand stimulus, but have been keen to stress the responsibility that falls on monetary policy to manage (core, systematic) inflation pressures, wherever they initially arise from. If there was a (macroeconomic policy) mistake, it rests – almost by definition, by statute – with the forecasting and policy setting of the Reserve Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee.

I haven’t seen any compelling piece of analysis from anyone (but most notably the Bank, whose job it is) unpicking the relative contributions of monetary and fiscal policy in getting us to the point where core inflation was so high and there was a consensus monetary policy adjustment was required. Nor, I think, has there been any really good analysis of why things that were widely expected in 2020 just never came to pass (eg personally I’m still surprised that amid the huge uncertainty around Covid, the border etc, business investment has held up as much as it has). Were the forecasts the government had available to it in 2020 from The Treasury and the Reserve Bank simply incompetently done or the best that could realistically have been done at the time?

Standard analytical indicators often don’t help much. This, for example, is the fiscal impulse measure from the HYEFU, which shows huge year to year fluctuations over the Covid and (assumed) aftermath period. Did fiscal policy go crazy in the year to June 2020? Well, not really, but we had huge wage subsidy outlays in the last few months of that year – despite which (and desirably as a matter of Covid policy at the time) GDP fell sharply. What was happening was income replacement for people unable to work because of the effects of the lockdowns. And no one much – certainly not the National Party – thinks that was a mistake. In the year to June 2021, a big negative fiscal impulse shows, simply because in contrast to the previous year there were no big lockdowns and associated huge outlays. And then we had late 2021’s lockdowns. And for 2022/23 no such events are forecast.

One can’t really say – in much of a meaningful way – that fiscal policy swung from being highly inflationary to highly disinflationary, wash and repeat. Instead, some mix of the virus, public reactions to it, and the policy restrictions periodically materially impeded the economy’s capacity to supply (to some unknowable extent even in the lightest restrictions period potential real GDP per capita is probably lower than otherwise too). The government provided partial income replacement, such that incomes fell by less than potential output. As the restrictions came off, the supply restrictions abated – and the government was no longer pumping out income support – but effective demand (itself constrained in the restrictions period) bounced back even more strongly.

Now, not all of the additional government spending has been of that fairly-uncontroversial type. Or even the things – running MIQ, vaccine rollouts – that were integral to the Covid response itself And we can all cite examples of wasteful spending, or things done under a Covid logo that really had nothing whatever to do with Covid responses. But most, in the scheme of things, were relatively small.

This chart shows The Treasury’s latest attempt at a structural balance estimate (the dotted line).

In the scheme of things (a) the deficits are pretty small, and (b) they don’t move around that much. If big and persistent structural deficits were your concern then – if this estimation is even roughly right – the first half of last decade was a much bigger issues. And recall that the persistent increase in government spending wasn’t that large by historical standards, wasn’t badly-telegraphed (to the Bank), and should have been something the Bank was readily able to have handled (keeping core inflation inside the target range).

The bottom line is that there was a forecasting mistake: not by ministers or the Labour Party, but by (a) The Treasury, and (b) the Reserve Bank and its monetary policy committee. Go back and check the macro forecasts in late 2020. The forecasters at the official agencies basically knew what fiscal policy was, even recognised the possibility of future lockdowns (and future income support), and they got the inflation and unemployment outlook quite wrong. They had lots of resources and so should have done better, but their forecasts weren’t extreme outliers (and they didn’t then seem wildly implausible to me). They knew about the supply constraints, they knew about the income support, they even knew that the world economy was going to be grappling with Covid for some time. Consistent with that, for much of 2020 inflation expectations – market prices or surveys – had been falling, even though people knew a fair amount about what monetary and fiscal policy were doing. In real terms, through much of that year, the OCR had barely fallen at all. It was all known, but the experts got things wrong.

Quite why they did still isn’t sufficiently clear. But, and it is only fair to recognise this, the (large) mistake made here seems to have been one repeated in a bunch of other countries, where resource pressures (and core inflation) have become evident much more strongly and quickly than most serious analysts had thought likely (or, looking at market prices, than markets themselves had expected). Some of that mistake was welcome – getting unemployment back down again was a great success, and inflation in too many countries had been below target for too long – so central banks had some buffer. But it has become most unwelcome, and central banks have been too slow to pivot and to reverse themselves.

Not only have the Opposition parties here been trying to blame government spending, but they have been trying to tie it to the 5.9 per cent headline inflation outcome. I suppose I understand the short-term politics of that, and if you are polling as badly as National was, perhaps you need some quick wins, any wins. But it doesn’t make much analytical sense, and actually enables the government to push back more than they really should be able to. Because no serious analyst thinks that either the government or the Reserve Bank is “to blame” for the full 5.9 per cent – the supply chain disruption effects etc are real, and to the extent they raise prices it is pretty basic economics for monetary policy to “look through” such exogenous factors. It seems unlikely those particular factors will be in play when we turn out to vote next year.

Core inflation not so much – indeed, the Bank’s sectoral core factor model measure is designed to look for the persistent components across the whole range of price increases, filtering out the high profile but idiosyncratic changes. Those measures have also risen strongly and now are above the top of the target range. That inflation is what NZ macro policy can, and should, do something about. But based on those measures – and their forecasts – the Reserve Bank has been too slow to act: the OCR today is still below where it was before Covid struck, even as core inflation and inflation expectations are way higher. Conventional measures of monetary policy stimulus suggest more fuel thrown on the fire now than was the case two years ago.

When I thought about writing this post, I thought about unpicking a series of parliamentary questions and answers from yesterday on inflation. I won’t, but suffice to say neither the Minister of Finance, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, or Simon Bridges or David Seymour emerged with much credit – at least for the evident command of the analytical and policy issues. There was simply no mention of monetary policy, of the Reserve Bank, of the Monetary Policy Committee, or (notably) the government’s legal responsibility to ensure that the Bank has been doing its job. It clearly hasn’t (or core inflation would not have gotten away on them to the extent it has). I suppose it is awkward for the politicians – who wants to be seen championing higher interest rates? – and yet that is the route to getting inflation back down, and the sooner action is taken the less the total action required is likely to be. With (core) inflation bursting out the top of the range, perhaps with further to go, the Bank haemorrhaging senior staff, the recent recruitment of a deputy chief executive for macro and monetary policy with no experience, expertise, or credibility in that area, it would seem a pretty open line of attack. Geeky? For sure? But it is where the real responsibility rests – with the Bank, and with the man to whom they are accountable, who appoints the Board and MPC members? There is some real government responsibility here, but it isn’t mainly about fiscal policy (wasteful as some spending items are, inefficient as some tax grabs are), but about institutional decline, and (core) inflation outcomes that have become quite troubling.

Since I started writing this post, an interview by Bloomberg with Luxon has appeared. In that interview Luxon declares that a National government would amend the Act to reinstate a single focus on price stability. I don’t particularly support that proposal – it was a concern of National in 2018 – but it is of no substantive relevance. Even the Governor has gone on record saying that in the environment of the last couple of years – when they forecast both inflation and employment to be very weak – he didn’t think monetary policy was run any differently than it would have been under the old mandate. That too is pretty basic macroeconomics. It is good that the Leader of the Opposition has begun to talk a bit about monetary policy, but he needs to train his fire where it belongs – on the Governor – not, as he did before Christmas, forcing Simon Bridges to walk back a comment casting doubt on whether National would support Orr being reappointed next year. In normal times, you would hope politicians wouldn’t need to comment much on central bankers at all. But the macro outcomes (notably inflation), and Orr’s approach on a whole manner of issues (including the ever-mounting LSAP losses) suggest these are far from normal times. Core inflation could and should be in the target range. It is a failure of the Reserve Bank that it is not, and that – to date – nothing energetic has been done in response.

Long live our noble Queen

On 7 February 1952, New Zealanders woke and – whether they turned on the radio or picked up the morning newspaper – only then did most learn that the previous afternoon King George VI had died, and that his daughter Princess Elizabeth was now our queen, Queen Elizabeth II. 70 years ago, before most of us were even alive.

To look at today’s New Zealand media one might suppose that some decades ago New Zealand had angrily tossed out the monarchy. There has been barely any mention of the 70th anniversary of the accession of New Zealand’s Head of State and what coverage there has been seems determined to treat it as British news, not as news about our own Head of State – she holds that office by laws passed by New Zealand’s Parliament, and polls suggest that today’s New Zealander’s still favour the system of constitutional monarchy that we share with the UK, Australia, Canada, and a variety of other countries. Much as a significant chunk of the media class might lament it, Elizabeth is our Queen, and has been for 70 years now. Whether as Queen of New Zealand or of her other realms and territories, her reign is now one of the very longest ever in recorded history. If one dates modern New Zealand from some time in 1840, she has been our head of state for almost 40 per cent of our history. A remarkable life of service.

(And, in fairness, while the media have preferred to play down any sense of Elizabeth as our Queen, the Prime Minister did put out a gracious and fitting statement.)

Anyway, I got a bit curious about how the accession of the Queen, 70 years ago, had been marked in New Zealand and recorded in the New Zealand media. Papers Past is a wonderful resource although of the major city papers sadly only the Press is available for 1952.

I started with the edition of Tuesday 5 February. In that paper it was reported that preparations were well underway for the planned visit to New Zealand in May of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip – undertaking the tour that the King himself had originally hoped to do. The Assistant Comptroller of the Royal Household had arrived on the 4th “to discuss final details and matters of etiquette. The economist is me could not, however, help noticing this element of the story.

It was a different time indeed, when the Cabinet was allocating cement.

The arrival of the Princess and her husband at the Kenyan lodge, where she was receive the grim news of the death of her father, was recorded in another story in which it was noted that the Queen and the Duke had attended Evensong at the small local church where “she spoke to the man who alone laid every stone of the church”.

What of Wednesday 6 February? It was a normal working day in New Zealand (and, as far as I can see from the table of contents there were no stories about the Treaty of Waitangi or the like). The Prime Minister – Sid Holland – was in Paris. Back here there were further reports of the forthcoming royal visit, including a push to keep handshakes to a minimum, and stories from the visit to Kenya. It was mid-summer and in Dunedin the touring West Indies cricket team had just beaten Otago.

King George VI died at Sandringham in the early hours of 6 February (New Zealand time being 12 hours ahead of that in the UK). The news was announced to be public at 11am (UK time).

In those days, the front pages of newspapers still seemed to be devoted to classified advertisements. It was no different in the Press of 7 February 1952. The news of the King’s death, and of the accession of Queen Elizabeth, appeared on page 5. This appears to be the editorial, and these were the first few sentences.

The Cabinet had met as soon as our government received the news, and the acting Prime Minister (Keith Holyoake) issued a statement in the early hours of the morning.

Despite the late hour – and presumably only for later editions – there are large numbers of stories, and photos (including one of the new heir to the throne, Prince Charles) over two pages (even managing to note that the forthcoming visit to New Zealand was now cancelled). There was an article about the visit by the then Duke and Duchess of York to New Zealand – and Christchurch in particular – in 1927 (among many other details, the Duke had had dinner with Labour leader Harry Holland in Westport).

The death of the King was marked immediately by the closure of all New Zealand schools on 7 February, and the closure of all government departments (other than essential services) for the afternoon of 7 February. No doubt there were many statements by local dignitaries around the country, but this was the statement by the (Labour) mayor of Christchurch.

In Greymouth, the mayor had requested that the bell of the local Catholic church be tolled 15 times (soon after the news first came through), once for each year of the King’s reign.

By the next issue of the newspaper – that for Friday 8 February – we still got through a great deal of other news first (the cricket test began that day in Christchurch) before the best part of three pages of coverage of the royal news.

There was a thoughtful editorial, even if it was a little wide of the mark with its suggestion “many [ in New Zealand] will never see her”, given the huge crowds for her first tour of New Zealand two years later. There was news of the forthcoming New Zealand official proclamation of the accession of the Queen, to occur the following Monday (more details here from the next day’s paper). The article is well-worth clicking through to for the details of official mourning, for the suggestion that employees should as far as possible be given time off on that Monday to attend local ceremonies marking the accession. This is just one snippet

Tributes from all manner of individuals and bodies – here and abroad – flowed in, and find a place in the pages of the Press. Here is an account of official American tributes and observances. And preparations for the funeral. From the next day’s paper, many resolutions of sympathy and loyalty.

By Monday 11 February, plans were in place. The King’s funeral was to be held that Friday (the Queen had requested that the day not be a public holiday). And the Prime Minister – who had been visiting West Germany when the King died – made a broadcast to New Zealand from London. In the same article it was reported that Mr Holland would be received by the Queen on Wednesday. Meanwhile back here the Governor-General, the Cabinet, and other dignitaries had attended a memorial service at (now Old) St Paul’s in Wellington. There were reports too of the special services in the churches of many denominations. If you wanted legal detail on the accession process, the Press had it covered.

In the Press of the 12th, you could read the (quite lengthy) account of the Christchurch civic proclamation of accession ceremony held the previous day – several thousand attended that ceremony, and there were similar smaller occasions in the boroughs around the city.

On the 13th we read that both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition (Walter Nash), both of whom had already been in London, would represent New Zealand at the funeral for the King. We also read of the Queen’s own declaration in taking her oath.

Back in New Zealand, in the following day’s paper we read some remarks made by the Minister of Education at a combined (four schools) memorial service in Wellington Town Hall.

The next day’s paper was full of articles about the funeral, but also carried this report of the Prime Minister’s meeting with the Queen, including this snippet.

And on the 16th, we read of the two minutes silence in memory of the King, and of great bell in Christchurch Cathedral tolling 56 times, once for each year of the King’s life, and so much more.

It was another age in many ways, but these surely were the monarchs of New Zealand, not by force or coercion but by the free consent, and loyalty of people, high and low, of all races and religions up and down New Zealand.

As indeed, Elizabeth II today is, by free choice of our own Parliament,

“Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of New Zealand and Her Other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith—”

We shall not see her like again, whether in New Zealand or in her other realms and territories. But the 70th anniversary of her accession, to our throne, should very much have been New Zealand news.

Inflation, monetary policy and all that

The CPI for the December quarter was finally released yesterday – even later in the month than that other CPI laggard the ABS. The picture wasn’t pretty, even if at this point not particularly surprising. My focus is on the sectoral factor model measure of core inflation – long the Reserve Bank’s favourite – and if, as my resident economics student says “but Dad, no one else seem to mention it”, well too bad. Of the range of indicators on offer it is the most useful if one is thinking about monetary policy, past and present.

Factor models like this provide imprecise reads (subject to revision) for the most recent periods – that’s what you’d expect, especially when things are moving a lot, as the model is looking to identify something like the underlying trend. The most recent observations were revised up yesterday, and the estimate for core inflation for the year to December 2021 was 3.2 per cent. That is outside the 1-3 per cent target range (itself specified in headline terms, although no one ever expected headline would stay in the range all the time).

It is less than ideal. It is a clear forecasting failure – which would be even more visible if we show on the same chart forecasts from 12-18 months ago.

But…it isn’t unprecedented. In 28 years of data, this is the third really sharp shift in the rate of core inflation – although both were in periods before this particular measure was developed. And, at least on this measure, at present core inflation is still a bit below the 3.6 per cent peak in 2007, or the 3.5 per cent the annual inflation rate averaged for a year or more in 2006 and 2007.

What perhaps does stand out is how little monetary policy has yet done, how slow to the party the Bank has been. Over 1999 to 2001, the OCR was raised 200 basis points. From 2004 to 2007, the OCR was raised 300 points. And as core inflation fell sharply from late 2008, the OCR was cuts by 575 basis points.

So far this time the OCR has been increased by 50 basis points, and is not even back to pre-Covid levels – even though, on this measure, core inflation never actually dipped in 2020. I refuse to criticise the Reserve Bank for misreading 2020 – apart from anything else they were in good company as forecasters – but their passivity in recent months is much harder to defend.

The sectoral factor model measure is itself made up of two components. Here they are

Because the model looks for trends, the big moves in this measure of core tradables inflation have often reflected the big swings in the exchange rate – which affects pretty much all import prices – but this time there has been no such swing. Just a lot more generalised inflation from abroad (as well as the one-offs that this model looks to winnow out). So a lot more (generalised) inflation from abroad – not something to discount – and a lot more arising from domestic developments (demand, capacity pressures, and perhaps some expectations effects too). It is a generalised issue – above target, and probably rising further (both from the momentum in the series, and continued tight labour markets and rising inflation norms).

The headline inflation number gets media and political attention it doesn’t really warrant. Headline inflation is volatile, and even if in principle it might be more controllable than what we see, it usually would not make economic sense to control it more tightly. For that reason, in 30+ years of inflation targeting it has never been the policy focus.

And to the extent that wage inflation fluctuates with price inflation, the relationship is much closer with core inflation (we’ll get new wages data next week, and most likely the annual wage inflation will have risen a bit further).

It is worth noting – for all the headlines – that in every single year of the last 25, wage inflation has run ahead of core (price) inflation. As it has continued to do even over the last year. That is what one would expect – productivity growth and all that – even if the economy were just growing steadily with the labour market near full employment.

It is true that the gap between wage and price (core) inflation is unusually narrow at present

Perhaps the gap will widen again over the coming year – overfull employment and all that – but bear in mind that true economywide productivity growth is probably atrociously (partly unavoidably) low at present, so the sustainable rate of real wage growth is also less than it was.

(None of this means wage earners aren’t now earning less per hour in real terms than they were a year ago, but that drop is, to a very considerable extent, unavoidable. The gap between headline and core inflation is typically about things that have made us poorer, for any given amount of labour supply.)

What does all this mean for policy? First, for all the criticism – often legitimate – of wasteful and undisciplined government spending over the last two years – core inflation is primarily a monetary policy issue, and sustained core inflation above target is a monetary policy failure. The government is ultimately accountable for monetary policy too, but if what we care about is keeping inflation in check, it is the Bank and the MPC that should primarily be in the frame, not fiscal policy. Monetary policymakers have to take fiscal policy – just like private behaviour/preferences – as given.

To me, the recent data confirms again that the Reserve Bank was far to slow to pivot, and far too sluggish when they eventually did. They are behind the game, as was clear even by November before they – like the government, but even longer – went for their long summer holiday in the midst of a fast-developing situation. It is pretty inexcusable that we will go for three months with not a word from the MPC, even as inflation has surged in an overheating economy.

What disconcerts me a bit is the apparent complacency even in parts of the private sector. (If I pick on the ANZ here it is only because they put out a particularly full and clear articulation of their story quite recently). As an example, ANZ had a piece out last week suggesting that the OCR would/should go to 3 per cent by about April next year, but that this would/should be accomplished with a steady series of 25 basis point adjustments. I’m also hesitant about making calls about where the OCR might be any considerable distance into the future (and in fairness they do highlight some of the uncertainties) but if you are going to make a central-view call like that most people might suppose it was consistent with a gradual escalation of capacity pressures, gradually leaned against with policy. But on their own description, the economic growth outlook over the next year doesn’t look spectacular at all – the word “insipid” even appeared – while the pressures (inflation and capacity) seem very real right now, in data that (at best) lags slightly. Core inflation has (unexpectedly) burst out of the target range, the economy is overheated, inflation expectations have risen (even in the last RB survey the two-year ahead measure was 2.96 per cent – up 90 points in six months, when the OCR has risen only 50 points. ANZ’s economists did address the possibility of a 50 basis point increase next month. They seemed to think it unlikely, because no ground has been prepared. They may well be right about that – and that may be what their clients care about – but, as advisers, they seemed unbothered about it. Why not urge the Bank to get out now and prepare the ground for next month’s review? Why not thrown caution to the wind and suggest the world wouldn’t end if the MPC actually took the market by surprise and took actions that increased the changes of keeping inflation in check? Based on what we know now, the economy would be better off if the Bank raised the OCR by 50 basis points next month (and sold some of that money-losing bond stockpile) and suggested it would be prepared to do the same again in April if the data warranted.

What difference does is make? The big risk right now is that people come to think that a normal inflation rate isn’t something near 2 per cent, but something near 3 per cent (or worse). If that happens – and no single survey will tell the story – it will take a lot more monetary policy adjustment (and lost output) at some point to bring things back to earth, all else equal. And whereas we have no real idea what monetary policy should be in the middle of next year, it is quite clear that considerably tighter conditions are warranted now, and that the Bank so far has not even kept up with the slippage in inflation and expectations.

What about Covid? By 23 February when the MPC descends from the mountain top, it seems likely that we might be nearing the peak of the unfolding Omicron wave. Experience abroad suggests that even when the government doesn’t simply mandate it, a lot of people will be staying at home, a lot of spending won’t be happening. Who knows – and we may hope not – MPC members themselves, or their advisers, may be sick and enfeebled. Tough as those weeks might be, they should not be an excuse for a reluctance to act decisively. MPC went slow last year, and to some extent now pays the price in lost optionality. Delay in August didn’t look costly then. Delay now looks really rather risky.

But who are we to look to for this action. As (core) inflation bursts out of the target band, and expectations of future inflation rise, we already have an enfeebled MPC, even pre Covid.

  • We have a Governor who has given few serious speeches in his almost four years in office,
  • A Deputy Governor who didn’t greatly impress when responsible for macro, and is now likely to be focused on learning his new job, and finding some subordinates after he and Orr restructured out his experienced senior managers before Christmas,
  • We have a Chief Economist who has been restructured out, and on his final meeting. No doubt he’ll give it his best shot but….that wasn’t much over the three years he was in the job, including not a single speech,
  • And we have the three externals, appointed more for their compliance than expertise, who’ve given not a single speech between them in three years, and two of them are weeks away from the expiry of their terms (and no news on whether they’ll be reappointed or replaced).

It was pretty uninspiring already, to meet a major policy, analytical and communications challenge. And then yesterday, the dumbing-down of the institution –  exemplified in speeches (lack thereof) and the near-complete absence now of published research –  continued, with the appointment of Karen Silk as the Assistant Governor (Orr’s deputy) responsible for matters macroeconomic and monetary policy.  And this new appointee –  who it seems may not be in place for February – seems to have precisely no background in, or experience of, macroeconomics and monetary policy at all (but apparently a degree in marketing)     But she seems to be an ideological buddy of the Governor’s, heavily engaged in climate change stuff.    Perhaps the superficial customer experience –  pretty pictures etc –  of the MPS will improve, but it is hard to imagine the substance of policy setting, policy analysis, and policy communications will.  It was simply an extraordinary appointment –  the sort of person one might expect to see if a bad minister were appointing his or her mates.  And if this appointment was Orr’s, Robertson has signed off on it, in agreeing to appoint her to the Monetary Policy Committee.  It would be laughably bad, except that it matters.  How, for example, is the new Assistant Governor likely to find any seriously credible economist to take up the Chief Economist position even if  –  and the evidence doesn’t favour the hypothesis at present – she and Orr cared?   Coming on top of all the previous senior management churn and low quality appointments it is almost as if Orr is now not vying for the title “Great team, best central bank”, but for worst advanced country bank.  (It is hard to think of serious advanced country central bank, not totally under the political thumb –  and rarely even then –  who would have such a person as the senior deputy responsible for macroeconomic and monetary policy matters: contrast if you will places like the RBA, the ECB, the Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, and numerous others.)

I sat down this morning and filled in the Bank’s latest inflation expectations survey.  For the first time –  in the 6/7 years I’ve been doing it –  I had to stop and think had about the questions about inflation five and ten years hence (I’ve typically just responded with a “2 per cent” answer –  long time away, midpoint of the target, 10 years at least beyond Orr’s term).  With core inflation high and rising, policy responses sluggish at best so far, and with the downward spiral in the quality of the MPC (and the lack of much serious research and analysis supporting them), how confident could I be about medium-term outcomes.  Perhaps it is still most likely that eventually inflation is hauled back, that over time core inflation gets towards 2 per cent, with shocks either side.  The rest of the world, after all, will still act as something of a check, no matter how poor our central bank becomes.  But the decline and fall of the institution is a recipe for more mistakes, more volatility, more communications failures, and less insight, less analysis, and fewer grounds for confidence that the targets the Minister sets will consistently be delivered at least cost and dislocation.  That should concern the Minister, but sadly there is no sign it –  or any of the other straws in the wind of institutional decline –  does. 

To what end?

It is two years today since my first post about pandemics (and the economy). Rereading it, and another the following week, over the weekend and it was interesting to reflect on what issues had (and hadn’t) sprung to mind. But back then, however fearful people might or might not have been initially, few would have supposed that two years on we’d be labouring under new, and even more onerous, restrictions, and that for the best part of two years few of us would have been able to travel.

I was quite supportive of the need for restrictions, especially at the border, for quite a long time. Even last year, when the government was so slow to roll out the vaccine, doing everything possible to keep the virus out would have seemed appropriate (ie more than the government actually did). As for domestic restrictions, in both 2020 and 2021 the government clearly overshot, imposing (and renewing) some restrictions that seemed more about asserting power and showing who was in control than about public health, and others that failed all tests of decent humanity. (None, of course, were ever justified by any sort of cost-benefit analysis – an abdication of any sort of decent policy analysis that I hope one day our politicians and senior officials look back on in shame.)

But that was then. Since late last year, the government’s approach has increasingly lost any coherence. Despite high vaccination rates, we’ve had extreme coercion used on those reluctant to get vaccinated, and we’ve lurched down a path of “papers please” where those who refuse to show their government papers are prohibited (either by law directly, or enabled by it) from undertaking many of the normal activities of life. All this as (a) it was clear that the biggest risk posed by the unvaccinated was to themselves, and (b) that lots of vaccinated people were getting Covid anyway, apparently often/mostly from other vaccinated people. Government guidelines as to when it would ease restrictions were repeatedly ignored by the government itself. The government meanwhile had confirmed that it had given up on elimination some time ago.

And then, of course, came Omicron – two months ago in other parts of the world. The experience of Omicron so far seems to be that it is highly highly infectious, partly as a result waves don’t last long, and among the vaccinated (even more so the boosted) the rates of serious illness and/or death seem remarkably low. In some places – the UK is the most obvious example – even with a lot of cases, numbers in hospital ICU care did not even increase during the Omicron wave (but there is a variety of experiences, depending in part on starting points). Nowhere, it seems, is there evidence of the spectre of “overwhelmed health system” having been realised (although you might expect, even hope, that systems would be put under some pressure).

As for our government, first it seemed that they shut down for the holidays. In normal times, no one would begrudge them that, but this was something more akin to “wartime” – a major threat unfolding, inter alia, just across the Tasman. You might have thought that all hands would have been on deck, led by the Prime Minister, with planning (and public consultation on those plans) advancing rapidly. And vaccination centres operating night and day to get vaccinated many more of those eligible for a third dose. Oh, and the child vaccination programme might have got going before Christmas too. But no, this was the government of complacency – we still don’t have their “plan” (apparently something is coming on Wednesday) – and now controls.

Even on what we have seen, policy is all over the place. Last week, they stopped allocating MIQ rooms for ordinary New Zealanders, but that was (a) done with no ministerial announcement, and (b) to affect arrivals a couple of months hence (when who knows what the environment will be). They keep telling us (sensibly, rightly) that Omicron will spread in the community, but then on Friday the government quietly put in place much-extended isolation requirements – of the sort that perhaps might make some sense (if complied with) in an elimination model, but which make no sense now – the more so as they will powerfully deter some from even getting tested.

And then yesterday we got the new general restrictions. From both the PM and the Director-General we were told they were still aiming to “stamp out” the outbreak, but even (especially?) they must know they are just making things up now – a Level 4 lockdown in August didn’t stamp out that outbreak (or wasn’t pursued long enough to), and this lot of restrictions is nothing like Level 4. The more realistic rhetoric/spin seems to be about “slowing the spread” – there are big adverts in the papers this morning enjoining us to get with the team, play our part.

But why do we want to “stop the spread”? I don’t. We are already two months behind much of the world – two months of repressive domestic restrictions and onerous border controls – and for what? Various other places are coming out the other side now, not having had particularly bad health experiences – England, Ireland, the eastern states of Australia, South Africa – while Ardern and her colleagues – apparently with little opposition from National – seem to be determined to try to slow the incoming tide. They’ve provided no supporting analysis, no cost-benefit analysis, there are no end-point dates for these controls (which may not do much “good” anyway, while disrupting lives), and no published criteria – not that on the past record they would ever stick to them – for getting controls off, getting our lives back to normal, binning the “papers please” regime, and opening the border (even just for New Zealanders).

Events are being cancelled all over the place, and whereas (say) we watched the Ashes test in Hobart a couple of weeks ago with large local crowds in attendance (in the middle of a not-small Omicron outbreak) the government is going to condemn us to the grim spectre of test matches with no crowds at all.

Of course, it could be worse. The government could – and may yet – resort to more onerous restrictions (have they done anything to prepare the public for several weeks of 30-40 deaths a day?) but it is unclear what they are trying to achieve, and how their cobbled-together policies fit a strategy. We hear talk about “flattening the curve” but that seems like a recipe for months and months of controls – the sort of restrictions that may appeal to public health professors and some left-wing politicians, but which should generally be anathema in a free and open society. There is talk, always talk, about getting our booster rate up – but (a) whose fault is it they weren’t offered earlier?, and b) even now, because of the delay, the percentage of our population with boosters is already higher than (say) the Australian share 6 weeks ago when their outbreak was getting underway.

People oriented to controls can always dream up reasons for delays – and I might have had a touch more sympathy if the government had shown itself ever willing to get rid of controls that were no longer self-evidently necessary – but they never attempt to show an overwhelming case. In an interesting Newsroom article over the weekend, on preparing for Omicron, Prof Michael Baker justified his case for more restrictions on the basis that “several hundred people” might die if we just let Omicron sweep through. Quite possibly – if one takes the Australian numbers as a guide – but 34000 people a year die in New Zealand, and that number fluctuates (easily plus or minus 1000) from year to year. It simply does not justify restrictions without limit, and lives lived – unable to sensibly plan – at the whim of politicians.

baker

And, of course, we are rightly reminded of the limitations of the public health system. It was a reasonable argument two years ago, but not now, when the government has done little or nothing to boost capacity over two years, and now wants to put us under their (somewhat half-hearted) controls anyway. Sure, there would be likely to be some weeks of extreme pressure on the system, but it is hard to conceive of any serious cost-benefit analysis – that value freedom at all – justifying society-wide restraints, indefinitely, to avoid a few weeks difficulty (and even some otherwise avoidable loss of life).

Now, of course, Omicron will be disruptive even if the government does nothing. Baker, in that same article, seemed to use that as justification for “oh well, we might as well just have lockdowns then”. But there is a big difference between government controls – backed by the coercive power of the state – and individuals and firms taking their own precautions, calibrated to their own individual risk and risk tolerance. I’m pretty sure no one would put off a quiet swim at a deserted beach, or a driving lesson for their child, except the state compelled them,

(And I say all this as someone who is almost 60, and hasn’t had the best of health in the last couple of years. There are risks to life, and – fully vaccinated and soon boosted – I’m quite happy to run those modest risks. I’m not happy seeing events cancelled willy-nilly at government fiat, or governments still stopping people travelling (indefinitely), and so on.)

There are lots of things the government could and should have done much better re Covid over the last 12-18 months. Had they been done we might be in a slightly better position now, but it is water under the bridge now, and nothing about the government or Ministry of Health gives any reason for confidence that we should put up with indefinite restrictions on their say so. They have the power of course, but they abuse and misuse it (down to and including the arrogant disdain evident in the way the government refuses to even put out case/hospitalisation data at a fixed time each day – a simple thing in some ways, but one that simply reveals their indifference and, quite possibly, incompetence).

Better to (a) scrap the vaccine pass system (which simply institutionalises repression, of the sort that should be alien to this country, for no significant public health benefit), (b) open the border to NZ citizens, and (c) cut the isolation requirements to something like those in the US and UK, with a view (d) to following the English lead and looking to remove all Covid restrictions by, say, 31 March (subject to renewal only by vote of Parliament, not arbitrary ministerial fiat with no consultation or transparency).

Oh, and release all the relevant Cabinet papers and ministerial briefings within two days of decisions having been made. These are our lives, our freedoms. We are not supposed to be just playthings of the government. The smallest regulatory changes in normal times have to go through proper (if often faux) consultative processes. Sometimes in emergencies needs must, but this was Omicron – they had the best part of two months to be prepared; do the analysis, test it in public, consult. Instead, perhaps we’ll see a “plan” on Wednesday, perhaps we’ll see the papers and analysis (if any exists) six months from now.

Central bank research

For some reason the other day I was prompted to have a look at how many research papers the Reserve Bank had published in recent years. This chart resulted.

RB DPs

Only one in the last two years, and that one paper – published last February – had five authors, four of whom worked for other institutions (overseas). It was really quite staggering. It wasn’t, after all, as if there had been no interesting issues, policy puzzles or the like over the last two years. It wasn’t as if universities had suddenly stepped up to the mark and were producing a superfluity of research on New Zealand macro and banking/financial regulation issues. It wasn’t even as if the Bank had suddenly been put on tight rations by a fiscally austere government – in fact, the latest Funding Agreement threw money and the Bank and staff numbers have blown out. Rather, or so it appears, management just stopped publishing research.

These research Discussion Papers are usually quite geeky pieces of work, formal research that is subjected to some external review before publication, and often written with the intention of being of a standard that might be submitted to an academic journal. The Reserve Bank had put quite an emphasis on this sort of research (mostly on macroeconomic matters) for probably 50 years, as one part of the sort of analytical work that underpins its policy, operations, and communications.

Of course, what ends up in published research papers like this isn’t all the thinking, analysis, or even research that the Bank has been doing – ever, not just now. Apart from anything else, they have a variety of other publications, including the Analytical Notes series that was started up a decade ago to fill a gap (for example, less-formal research, often with shorter turnaround times), and even the Reserve Bank Bulletin which had had a mix of types of articles, but itself appears to have been in steep decline. There are speeches from senior managers, but as I’ve pointed out previously these days these are few and rarely insightful (not much research, here or abroad, informs them). There will be other analysis and research that simply never sees the light of day – the Bank not being known for its transparency – but what appears in public is likely to be an indicator of what does (or doesn’t) lie beneath the surface. The Bank still has some staff who appear to have formal research skills – indeed a year ago they recruited one of New Zealand’s best economists apparently to work on preparations for the next review of the monetary policy Remit – but what we see is thin pickings indeed. Most of most able researchers of the last decade have left, and as far as I can see there is no one working in the research function with any long or deep experience of the New Zealand economy and financial system.

Recall that the previous Governor espoused a goal that the Bank should be not just adequate but the “best small central bank” in the world, while the current one often reminds people of his mantra “Great team, best central bank”, suggesting a vision not even constrained by the (small) size of New Zealand.

Does any of this matter? I could probably mount an argument that much of what the Bank is charged by Parliament with doing could, in principle, be done with little or no formal research (of the type that appears in Discussion Papers). In principle, a keen appetite for the products of overseas research, a climate that encouraged debate and diversity of ideas, active engagement with other central banks, and a steady flow of less-formal analysis wouldn’t necessarily lead to particularly bad outcomes. And having been around in the days when the Bank was doing some world-leading stuff (notably inflation targeting, but also some of the bank regulatory policies) it is fair to note that little or none of that drew on (or was reflected in) formal RBNZ Discussion Papers.

But it isn’t really the standard that we should expect these days, nor is there any sign that people in other countries do. It is not that a single research paper is likely to decisively change any particular policy setting (perhaps not even 5 or 10 would) and many of the papers might go nowhere much at all. But a flow of formal published research is one of the marks of an institution that thinks, that has an intellectually vibrant culture, that is open to new ideas etc etc. And on some policy calls, we really have a right to expect that the Bank – with huge amounts of policy discretion, and quite limited accountability – is doing world-standard research of its own, and/or commissioning it from others, and making that research available for challenge, scrutiny etc. One might think here of appproaches to bank capital policy, where the current Governor took a bold non-consensus decision, but where the institution has no published record of any substantive serious research. Sometimes these things might just be about trying to find frameworks that make some sense – never all of it – of what has been going on, or bringing formal evidence to bear on (for example) what the LSAP has accomplished.

But, these days, there is little sign of any of it from our central bank – and as a straw in the wind, it is at one with a record of few (and rarely good) speeches, inaccessible MPC members (themselves ruled out from doing research), and policy documents that rarely seem to reflect robust analysis.

Of course, one can expect formal research outputs to fluctuate a bit from year to year. Topics come and go, immediate management priorities come and go, particularly able and productive researchers come and go. But one paper (and that mostly co-authored) in two turbulent years isn’t a sign of an institution that any longer takes seriously generating research output, or the sort of climate that makes an institution attractive to really able people.

What about other countries? I went counting.

Much discussion in New Zealand compares us to other Anglo countries, and in central banking terms, Australia, Canada and the UK have had similar (inflation-targeting) macro policy frameworks.

anglo DPs

Of course, each of these are much bigger countries than New Zealand (and on that basis one might think the RBA rather light on its published research) but (a) there aren’t huge economies of scale in central banking (our economic puzzles can be just as intractable as those of much larger countries), and (b) both the RBA and the Bank of Canada have a narrower range of policy responsibilities than the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.

So how does the RBNZ compare with the central banks of other small advanced countries?

DPs adv countries

Central banks of very small countries (in this case, Iceland and Slovenia) have tended not to publish much formal research – although still more than the RBNZ in the last couple of years – and one might wonder at the budgetary priorities of the central bank of Lithuania (just under three million people and without a monetary policy of its own), but even before this decade the flow of formal research from our central bank looks to have been at low end of what one might expect given (a) our population, (b) the wider range of issues the RB is responsible for, and (c) the idiosyncratic nature of some aspects of our economy. There is no single right or wrong volume of formal research, but next-to-no published research simply looks like a dereliction of duty. (One might have hoped that a Board chaired by a university vice-chancellor – one with a reputation of getting research metrics looking good – might have raised questions, but…….this is the mostly-useless Reserve Bank Board.)

Again, does it matter? In my more cynical moments over the years I used to observe that perhaps the main difference inventing inflation targeting made was that we subsequently got invited to a better class of international conference. It might not sound much, but it is a straw in the wind for something that really does matter – the connectedness of the institution, the exposure to ideas, the ability to get leading people to take an interest and visit etc etc. We used to have that. Not all the conferences were useful, not all the visitors were useful, and so on, but becoming known as a central bank that (a) rules out from its MPC anyone with ongoing expertise in monetary policy, (b) publishes hardly any serious research, and (c) where senior management, if they speak at all (recall that the chief economist gave not a single published speech), make only the lightest-weight speeches isn’t a recipe for keeping engaged with the world, or the flow of ideas or research. When you are all already small, remote, idiosyncratic, and not as rich as Croesus (we can’t just throw money at potential visitors) it is a poor lookout.

These outcomes must have been the result of deliberate decisions. They need not be forever. Capability can be rebuilt, although doing so in an enduring way takes time and leadership. Who Orr appoints to the current key vacancies is likely to reveal quite a bit as to whether the Governor has any interest in creating a research-informed Reserve Bank, across the range of key policy areas he is responsible for. If not – and most likely not – it will be another sign of a deeply troubled institution, taking a similar path of decline to too many other New Zealand institutions in recent years. Responsibility for that rests not just with individual officials, but with a government (and Minister of Finance in particular) who seems not to care.

A sad ending

Yesterday morning’s news was an NBR headline – story accessible only to those with a subscription – in which the Reserve Bank appeared to have confirmed to this single media outlet that Deputy Governor, Geoff Bascand (a statutory appointee, and member of the Monetary Policy Committee) had left his job early, after speaking without authorisation to a third party about the Bank’s management restructuring. Later in the day, we got more accessible versions of this astonishing development (including this interest.co.nz account).

Bascand had been a public servant for a period spanning 40 years, starting in The Treasury in the 80s, and including stints as head of the Labour Market Policy Group (at the old Department of Labour), Government Statistician, and (since 2013) as Reserve Bank Deputy Governor. His public sector career had had its ups and downs, and he never quite reached the very top levels, but what a way to end it. In many ways, he was a classic public servant – most people seemed to like him, quite a few respected him, he wasn’t (it seemed) flamboyant or reckless. He went along. He wasn’t an intellectual leader, but he got things done. He didn’t seem to stand on titles etc – I was quite impressed that he was willing to take the step back from a CEO role at SNZ to (initially) the third-ranked position at the Reserve Bank (even as I assumed at the time that he saw it as a stepping stone back into the policy-institution mainstream, perhaps with aspirations to be Governor or Secretary to the Treasury). And in 2017 he was quite (unusually) open (to media) that he’d applied for the Governor’s role, knowing (presumably) that even as incumbent (but new) deputy chief executive he probably had no better than a 50/50 chance. In the first three years of the Monetary Policy Committee, he had been by far the least-unimpressive of the members, and gave speeches that were sometimes almost worthy of a member of a powerful independent policymaking committee in an advanced country.

I first met Geoff 35 years ago, but had only had off and on contact with him until he came to the Bank. We then sat on many of the same committees, but I left the Bank a couple of years later, and my main dealings with Geoff were actually over the last 8 years when we were both trustees of the troubled Reserve Bank staff pension scheme and spent too many hours locked in long meetings. We had our differences there – sometimes quite stark, sometimes on quite important issues – but in recent years in particular we seemed to have got on well, and even together crafted a resolution to one of the lesser issues the scheme was dealing with. I say this mostly as context. I don’t wish Geoff any ill at all.

When it was announced a few months ago that Bascand was leaving the Bank at the start of 2022, it wasn’t entirely clear what was going on. One plausible story was that at his age (60ish), unlikely now to ever become Governor, he’d simply opted for a slower pace of life – golf, grandkids, and some directorships/consultancies etc. Another was that he had become so frustrated with the Orr approach that he simply wanted out. The two weren’t incompatible necessarily, but if you are part of a project you are totally at one with, it isn’t usual to simply walk away – in good health, and not that old. But the new governance structure for the Bank was coming in mid-2022, and he might also have thought someone needed to be willing to commit several years to bedding in the new model. There was always the possibility Orr wanted him out, but as holder of a statutory office appointed by the Minister there was no direct way of effecting that, despite the reputation Orr had long had for churn among his senior staff. The speed with which Bascand’s replacement was announced – with no advertisement etc process – did tend to reinforce suspicions.

The concerns about top-level departures started to step up in November when it was announced that the Bank’s Chief Economist was leaving after less than three years in the job – having been appointed by Orr, it was quickly apparent he was being restructured out by Orr (Orr having restructured out the previous Chief Economist). Questions started to be raised, including at Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee. With inflation rising sharply, and unease (justified and not) about the Bank’s handling of monetary policy through the Covid period, the Governor’s position was becoming somewhat exposed.

But there was more to come. The management restructuring was ongoing and now claimed the two senior managers responsible for banking regulation and supervision, who had been direct reports of Geoff Bascand’s (as deputy governor and head of financial stability). We still don’t know the details of the restructuring – the Bank is playing OIA obstruction – but both Andy Wood and Toby Fiennes decided to leave, their own previous jobs presumably having disappeared (Fiennes already having been effectively demoted in an earlier Orr restructuring). That might prove quite uncomfortable for the Governor, with annual select committee hearing coming up on 15 December (this time the annual Financial Review, focused on the year to 30 June, but allowing a very wide range of issues to be raised).

And so, it seems (Orr did not deny it when questioned on it at FEC), the Bank decided to keep this news secret (from staff and the public) until after the FEC hearing was over.

And yet the news got out, with a story from Business Desk’s Jenny Ruth late the previous afternoon (and a statement from the Bank confirming the departures). Orr faced repeated questions at FEC the following day (I wrote about it here), and some of the answers from him and his team proved to be quite misleading. There was a lot of bluster, and the Governor did not emerge well.

There were a couple of straws in the wind – no more – that week that suggested that the Bascand situation was less than happy. Watch the FEC hearing (accessible on the FEC Facebook page) and you will see that Bascand was there – Orr even mentions it at one point – but in the back seats with the large group the Bank brought along. That was odd. Bascand was at this point still the incumbent Deputy Governor, and the hearing was formally focused on the 2020/21 financial year. It wasn’t that there wasn’t room at the top table – Orr was joined there by the incoming Deputy Governor and one of the his many more-obscure Assistant Governors. Not having Bascand up front – and several MPs have made generous comments about Bascand – looked not quite right.

And then on the Friday of that week, Bascand simply did not turn up for a long and important meeting of the superannuation scheme trustees, a meeting that had been scheduled explicitly to draw on his expertise and experience before his scheduled departure in the first week of January. His replacement had already been appointed (from 5 Jan) and invited to attend the meeting as a silent observer. Initially not suspecting anything – other than idly wondering what financial stability drama there might be on 17 December – I asked the chair if Geoff had then nominated the replacement as his (legal) alternate, which would enable that person to participate fully. It would have been a natural thing to have done if something had come up and Geoff was simply too busy. But all we got was a rather flustered “no”.

But none of that took one anywhere, at least until yesterday’s story.

The story did not tell us what Bascand had told to whom, only that he had had unauthorised discussions with an outsider, had confessed and apologised, and had left the Bank on 17 December, several weeks before his scheduled (early Jan) departure date.

So it is hardly a stretch to suppose that he was the ultimate source of the 14 December story about the further senior management departures – since it (a) involved people who had directly worked for him for several years, and (b) came out late on 14 December, and while he was still there (FEC) on the early morning of the 15th he was gone by the 17th. Most probably Bascand didn’t directly communicate with the journalist who broke the story – although even had he done so, the journalist would have needed independent confirmation to help provide cover to her source – but may well have told someone with the explicit intention that the news get to a journalist with a reputation for taking RB issues seriously. (It is quite clear, on the other hand, that these unauthorised discussions weren’t, say, a passing mention to his wife – the consequences, confirmed by the Bank yesterday, tell us it was much more serious than that.)

There can’t have been many people at the Bank who knew (on say 13 Dec) that Wood and Fiennes were going. The Governor, the incoming deputy (who would soon be responsible for financial stability), perhaps the Assistant Governor responsible for HR, perhaps the respective PAs, Wood and Fiennes themselves, and Bascand. Bascand either because he was still incumbent Deputy Governor or because either or both of Wood and Fiennes would most likely have talked to Bascand – their boss for several years, but not now the person driving decisionmaking – before making their final decisions. Only disgruntled people had an incentive to leak, which would have quickly narrowed the field, and Bascand apparently confessed, apologised, and agreed to go early. It could reasonably have been seen as a sacking offence but (a) no doubt the Bank wanted to keep this quiet, and (b) getting rid of a statutory officeholder isn’t quite like dismissing an ordinary staff member.

Why would Bascand have done it? Presumably the motive was pure and simple to put Orr on the spot at FEC, perhaps driven by frustration at how his loyal and capable senior staff had been treated. But it was still a strange step for someone like Bascand – the mostly fairly buttoned-down bureaucrat – to have taken. After all, although the FEC hearing became more of a spectacle, and more uncomfortable for Orr, it wasn’t as if this was really whistleblowing – the FEC hearing itself was never going to be decisive (of anything), and the Bank would have announced the departures a day or two later anyway. If – as I think there are – there are serious questions to be asked about Orr’s stewardship, a couple of days wasn’t going to make much difference in the scheme of things. Perhaps Geoff was just at the end of his tether?

If this is the story – and while it seems likely we can’t be certain – did he suppose he’d not be found out? Perhaps, but why take the risk? Perhaps he thought there weren’t really any downsides for him? But if so, he was wrong. Leaving two weeks early a job you’d resigned from anyway isn’t the cost. But yesterday’s story is. I guess that story wasn’t guaranteed to leak out, but….Wellington is a small place, and who knows what story staff were told as to why Geoff wasn’t around for his scheduled last few days.

It is simply a really bad look. Even real whistleblowers – of information about (a) misbehaviour that (b) would never otherwise come out – rarely prosper (even though society needs such people). But this wasn’t whistleblowing – Orr was within his rights to restructure, and the news was going to come out anyway – and just looks rather petulant and undisciplined. And whatever you think of Orr’s stewardship of the Bank, a senior figure behaving this way – breaching his obligations (moral and otherwise) is unlikely to endear himself to people (government or private sector) considering Geoff for future directorships and consultancies. If he had real concerns about Orr’s stewardship – and he should have – a detailed letter to the Minister of Finance, after he had left the Bank, might have been in order. Perhaps even a serious interview with a major media outlet a few months down the track (Orr is up for reappointment early next year), although in cosy Wellington even that would have raised eyebrows. But not leaking to the media – with a high probability of being found out – simply for some short-term additional embarrassment for the boss. (And it is not as if Geoff in the past has not expressed firm views on anyone speaking out in a way that might embarrass him or those he supports.)

I was glad the news of those further senior management departures got out in time for FEC, was glad to see National and ACT MPs asking hard questions of Orr – and hope they now follow up further – but what Bascand (who had obligations to the Bank) appears to have done was quite inappropriate and unacceptable, and it is good that that news has belatedly come out. It is a sad way to end a long public service career.

But what a mess an important and powerful public agency is clearly in. So many key people going or gone, so little analytical, operational or policy excellence, so little banking or regulatory experience at the top of a major banking regulatory agency, and so on. Meanwhile, the Board chair who presided while all this went on has been given another term, and all indications are that none of this much bothers the person with the ultimate responsibility, the Minister of Finance. It should. We need to end, and reverse, the degradation of major New Zealand public institutions.

UPDATE: Continuing to mull over this business, I’m still a bit inclined to wonder if there is more to the story. Is there a possibility that Bascand took the fall, covering for someone else (for whom the consequences of discovery might have been greater)? I guess we’ll never know, and perhaps it is just that I don’t want to believe that someone like Geoff could have acted this way, even tired, even frustrated. There is something particularly treacherous about a deputy deliberately undercutting his boss in a way implied by the story told in this post. But probably only a couple of people know the truth of the matter, and they won’t be saying.