Why Reserve Bank independence matters

The case for Reserve Bank independence on monetary policy is obvious. If politicians have control of the money supply, they will use it to support their re-election.

But what is the case for Reserve Bank independence on financial regulation?*

The question arises because the Reserve Bank is looking at disclosure rules and possibly other regulations in response to climate change. The Bank can only consider these actions by maintaining climate change is a risk to financial stability. The Reserve Bank Act does not mention climate change but makes the Bank responsible for the stability of the financial system.

The Reserve Bank has not found any credible evidence that climate change threatens financial stability. Climate change is a big problem, to be sure, which demands a response. But its costs will be manageable and come with decades of warning. The idea that climate change is financial stability risk is absurd.

Accordingly, the Reserve Bank is outside its financial stability mandate by focusing on climate change. Its decision to target climate looks politically motivated.

John Cochrane explains why the combination of unlawful, politically-motivated actions by powerful financial regulators is toxic:

Of all the threats posed by a slowly warming climate, why is Ms. Yellen [the US Treasury Secretary] talking about financial stability? The answer is simple: Financial regulators are not supposed to implement each administration’s policies on non-financial matters. Financial regulators may only act if they think financial stability is at risk.

Why? Imagine that Trump returns. He declares, “Illegal immigration is an existential crisis. I can’t get Congress to do anything about it. Financial regulators: Tell banks to freeze the bank accounts of any customers who can’t prove legal status. Scour people’s accounts for payments to illegal employees. Freeze out any business that hires an illegal.” You would be shocked. The nation would be shocked. Ms. Yellen would be shocked. There is no financial risk here, we would all say. This is a vast abuse of power.

The Reserve Bank’s actions on climate change are not remotely in the same league of awfulness as this scenario. But it opens the door to that possibility in the future.

Climate risk to the financial system is a Big Lie. I don’t know how to put this politely. A little lie is a knowing untruth spouted by a devious individual. A Big Lie is a whopper, self-evidently false when parsed in standard English, passed around and around the bubbles of Davos, Glasgow, alphabet-soup financial agencies, philanthropies, and the narrative-endorsing media, until earnest do-gooders come to believe in its nonsense. Spouting it gains one the approval of the elite, and denying it quick expulsion and exclusion. A Big Lie justifies extraordinary grasps of political power.

Why repeat this Big Lie? Well, it’s obvious. Many people in our government and surrounding policy elites want to expand a particular kind of climate policy. That policy centers on stopping fossil-fuel development and use, before alternatives are available at scale, and subsidizing a particular kind of “green” projects. Windmills, solar panels, electric cars, rail, yes. Nuclear, carbon capture and storage — which would permit fossil-fuel burning — natural gas, hydrogen, geothermal, hydropower, innovation, zoning and land-use reform, adaptation, no.

Democratically elected legislatures and accountable administrations refuse to quickly implement this policy. Even the Biden administration, which on day one canceled the Keystone pipeline, quickly turned around to ask OPEC and the Russians to turn on the spigots when voters noticed gas prices rising.

What to do? Well, turn to financial regulation. What they can’t accomplish by accountable, democratic methods, they can accomplish by unleashing the awesome power of financial regulators to impose these policies, by denying funding to fossil-fuel companies and their customers, and freezing them out of the financial or payments system as we do to pot farmers, by demanding “disclosures.” The European Central Bank (ECB) is already printing money to buy “green” bonds, declaring them to be “undervalued.”

It is a particularly effective idea, because once thousands of pages of regulations are written, once the right people are appointed with all the protections of office, once the Twitter mob has silenced dissenters in the financial-regulatory community, once private businesses have gotten the message how to please regulators and hired hundreds of thousands of climate-disclosure compliance officers, the effort will be immune to the whims of pesky voters….

Most of all, it is blatantly illegal. In a democracy, independent agencies have broad but limited powers. Financial regulators are limited to financial risks. Securities regulators are supposed to enforce the “fiduciary rule” that asset managers must invest only on financial basis, not to please either the managers’ or politicians’ preferences. And there are great reasons for this limitation. If the Fed starts buying “green bonds,” the next Trump can force it to start buying “build the wall” bonds…

John Cochrane really is difficult to excerpt. Do read the whole thing.

In New Zealand, the order of events is slightly different. Climate change is more politically feasible here than in other countries, with the possible exception of agriculture. But it is the Governor driving the Bank’s focus on climate, rather than politicians forcing it onto the Bank. The end result is the same: an unelected body pushing a political agenda, compromising its independence, and opening the door to greater abuses in future. It is all fundamentally undemocratic.

Finally, a nice insight from Cochrane on the logic behind central banks’ focus on investment:

What they mean is not climate risk to the financial system, but the financial system’s risk to the climate, by financing the “wrong” investments. But they’re not allowed to regulate that. Hence the Big Lie: We looked for risks, and guess what, climate came out on top!

John Cochrane will deliver a public webinar for the New Zealand Initiative on Thursday 2 December at 11am. Sign up here.

Ian Harrison will deliver a public seminar on “Climate change and the risk to financial stability; Reality or overreaction?” next week on Friday 26 November at 11am Sign up here.

*To be clear, the independent application of financial regulation. Policy setting sits and should remain with the elected government.

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