NZ Herald business editor at large

'I'm not dead and buried yet' - Reserve Bank governor Graeme Wheeler

"That sounds corny," says Reserve Bank governor Graeme Wheeler, interrupting himself halfway through an uncharacteristically emotional reflection on his time in the role.

Fair enough, it was a corny question: what will you miss most about the job?

"It is heartfelt, though," says Wheeler, as we chat by video link between the Reserve Bank's Wellington and Auckland offices, shortly after Thursday's monetary policy statement.

Although he left the official cash rate unchanged, there is plenty of economics to discuss - Donald Trump risks, inflation's big comeback, or the chances that the housing market may finally be cooling.

But this has been an unusual week.

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Steven Joyce announced that Wheeler will not seek a second term and outlined an unorthodox succession plan, to avoid a timing clash between his September 26 departure date and the general election on September 23.

Wheeler, for the record, says he told Bill English that he was only in for one term at the time he took the job in 2012.

Reserve Bank governors serve up to two terms of five years and there is an age limit of 70, which Wheeler would have been bumping up against by 2022.

"So the Minister knew it and the chair of the board, various chairs, I indicated to them as well," he says. "I had said that, given my age and the fact that I left a business that had been successful to take this role, that I really wanted to get on and do other things."

After beginning his career in Wellington with the Treasury, Wheeler joined the World Bank in the late 1990s, rising to global head of operations.

He left in 2010 and took on high level governance roles, as well as starting a business working on privatisations in Russia.

He could probably have made a lot more money in the past five years with considerably less grief, but he returned to public service because he felt he could give something back to New Zealand.

So, back to that "corny" stuff.

To paraphrase, Wheeler will really miss his team at the Reserve Bank and rates them very highly.

It's a relatively small organisation - at least in comparison with the 12,000 staff he oversaw at the World Bank - but it is full of people who are "passionately committed to serving New Zealand."

It has also been highly intellectually stimulating and challenging, he says.

Wheeler thinks so highly of his fellow governors that he can't hide hopes that they will be among the front runners to replace him.

There are four governors, including himself, on the Reserve Bank team, who have all worked at either the World Bank or the IMF, he notes.

Deputy Grant Spencer will step into the top role for six months to ensure a smooth transition.

But Spencer will retire after that, making Wheeler's enthusiasm for an internal candidate a strong endorsement of the other two governors: Geoff Bascand, who heads the operations side, and John McDermott, who heads the economics team.

Wheeler has run a "governing committee" in his time - based on the Canadian model - to support his decision making process.

Unlike many central banks, the New Zealand model gives the ultimate authority and responsibility for monetary policy decisions to the governor.

Wheeler says he would like to see the committee structure formalised by the Government.

He says a focus has been "to try and create a situation where my successor could come from the institution".

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"Given the quality of the team, I think we are in a position where we would have the potential to have an internal appointment," he says. "Whether there is or not is up to the board and who they recommend to the Minister ... but I'm conscious that the board has not had an internal appointment for governor for at least 25 years."

Westpac chief economist Michael Gordon noted this week that "predicting who will be appointed has proven to be a mug's game."

The key, he suggested, is that the governor's role is actually a chief executive position.
As Wheeler talks through his big achievements at the Bank, it's clear how much he sees it that way.

"Monetary policy and macroprudential policy will always be a significant part of the job but there are also multiple businesses here and they are complex businesses."

For example, the Bank operates New Zealand's wholesale payment and settlement systems, which the registered banks and other financial institutions use to complete transactions. About $30 billion of transactions are settled through those systems each day.

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Wheeler talks about implementing big technology and regulatory projects and other behind the scenes management challenges.

He notes that he's had to work with strict budget constraints that required redundancies and other cost saving measures such as letting office space in the Reserve Bank building.
He is proud of the project to introduce new bank notes, which he believes has gone well.
"If we'd made a mess of it we'd have heard about it pretty quickly," he says.

Wheeler has had his fair share of critics, though.

He has faced pressure to boost inflation - which fell below the official target band of 1-3 per cent for more than two years (it re-entered late last year).

"You certainly need a thick skin," he says. "Different people have different views about monetary policy. In the financial markets there are people involved on both sides of the transaction and there is lots of money at stake. So there's lots of views about what policy should be doing and where it should be going."

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Inflation - or the lack of it - has presented challenge for all the central banks, he notes.

"We had a situation where tradeable inflation has been negative for five years and that certainly hasn't happened since the Great Depression. That's an extraordinary situation - we've seen negative interest rates, we've seen massive amounts of quantitative easing, it has certainly affected our economy in terms of long term interest rates."

Every governor has their own set of challenges though, he says.

Broadly, if you look at where New Zealand is now "in terms of growth, inflation, unemployment rate, current account as a share of GDP, labour force participation and compare all that with a 20 or 30 year average, then the economy is a very good shape", he says.

"It is puzzling to me why some of the commentators been so critical when the Reserve Bank is a big part of that outcome. We aren't the whole story by any means, but our monetary policy configurations do have a major impact on the economy."

But those frustrations are all part of the cut and thrust of the job.

The criticism Wheeler feels is "unfair" relates to his allegedly terse relationship with the Government.

"That's nonsense," he says. "The relationship is very good. It's very frank and very open ... as you'd expect.

"I have a very good relationship with Bill English - and a very good relationship developing with Steven Joyce."

The constraints of the Reserve Bank governor's mandate also appear to frustrate Wheeler at times.

While he does not want to see the inflation focused policy target changed, he is conscious of just how much is outside of the Bank's control.

Things like tradeable inflation and currency reveal the limits of central bank power.
Social critics have also highlighted the narrow policy focus as a weakness in dealing with poverty and inequality.

"I'm always interested in that, given I've spent a considerable part of my life working on poverty related issues," he says, referring to his time at the World Bank.

"But," he checks himself. "I start to get out of my mandate in terms of talking about some of that."

He has, after all still got nearly eight months left in the job.

"I'm not dead and buried yet. There's still lots to do."

- NZ Herald

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