Appointing the new President and two directors of our central bank: butterfingered fiddling with an aftertaste of sprouts...

Well, the dust has now settled in the Netherlands on the announcements with respect to the new President and directors of our central bank: De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB). It is clear that our Minister of Finance, de Jager, has appointed one of his own top-managers, Klaas Knot, as the next President of DNB, to succeed Nout Wellink. And Jan Sijbrand (former NIBC and ABN AMRO), is to become the Executive Director in charge of Supervision. And as a result of the clumsy process, one of the internal DNB-candidates, Lex Hoogduin, who was proposed/favoured by the Supervisory Board, drew his conclusions and decided to leave. So what we can also read in the press release of DNB is that a third new appointment is announced: that of Frank Eldersohn, who will be Executive Director in charge of the 'internal operations'; the day to day functioning in organisational/HR terms.

Let's review this appointment process from a distance, drawing on the numerous reports and bits of work that are available with respect to the functioning of DNB, AFM and financial supervision.

First some colours in the background
Traditionally, both DNB and the Authority Financial Markets (AFM) were given quite some leeway in how they organised their business and executed their constitutional supervisory roles. The consequence was that the AFM developed a policeman-style under Chairman Arthur Dokters van Leeuwen. His successor, Hans Hoogervorst, combined this approach with a political savyness and unnecessary PR-agressiveness. Hoogervorst used publicity incidents to hurt banks in their image and bashed the banks into his prescription: an academic frame-of-mind in which consumers are rational, yet deserve paternalistic protection from overcrediting and in which any form of kick-back is to be eliminated in the marketplace. I am afraid that the AFM is going to need quite some years to discover that they were wrong in assuming the consumer rationality and that they will in the end discover that the elimination of kick-backs means that financial advice for consumers has become far too expensive (and thus: out of reach) for the consumers. So through enforcement of their academic yoke, they will eventually make financial advice more costly, cumbersome and less available to the public at large. Similarly, we will find out in about 5 years -when the market has come to a complete standstill- that they have been beating to loud on the mortgages drum.

Now for DNB. While the AFM is noisily supervising the banks, DNB kept up their appearences in their old-fashioned supervisory stile in which banks are invited over for a cup of tea to discuss business. Whereas AFM was showing too much teeth, DNB showed too little. And that had an effect on the cooperation between the policing AFM and the ever-so-polite DNB. And then DNB got traumatized in 2006, by the failure of Bank van der Hoop. From that moment on, all things in DNB-life became legal. External advisors advised on each step of supervision, thus paralyzing DNB. DNB became afraid to move at all and also got stuck under the spell of Wellink. Wellink was in the Board since 1983 and had arrived at his second 7-year term. Which is impractical, as it is impossible to organise the required internal criticism and openness for such a long period. It just doesn't work as we can see from the examples of Kohl, Thatcher and Lubbers. As a consequence, the oil-tanker DNB was not able to respond promptly and properly in discussions on the ABN AMRO take-over, the failing of Icesave and the demise of DSB. Our readers should note however that it is not so helpful for the central bank to be surrounded by inconsistent and populist claptrap on complex banking issues. But that's all part of the game, so as a President you have to be able to handle that as well.

Our Ministry of Finance meanwhile lacked all vision on how to organise financial supervision. And I know this sounds harsh and crude, but it is a simple fact. Our independent Court of Auditors reported their amazement about the fact and the response of our Ministry was: our supervisory policy is embedded in the Law on Financial Supervision (WFT in Dutch). Well, the connoisseurs of that law will shrug their shoulders, smiling politely. Because the WFT is a beautiful, idealistic legal project that had the potentially to become a great legal structure for the financial sector, also through the nuanced use of open standards. In practice, however, every chapter of the WFT-law was introduced in a hurry so at present there is literally no understanding it any more. If we would consider the WFT to be a computer-application, it would be immediately classified as a spaghetti-bomb and a threat to business-continuity, requiring a comprehensive revamp and structural re-engineering.

Equally important is the fact that in the late nineties the internal organization of Finance was overturned. While the former Ministry would have a department dealing with the financial sector as such, the new departments were split up on the basis of regulatory aspects such as: stability, market conduct, generally and so on. This led to less visibility and understanding of the impact of legislative changes for the sector as such. Thus, the sector was facing a Ministry that looked like a conveyor belt pushing out partial amendments.

Change, but how?
It is clear that the above institutional and supervisory framework is not sufficiently apt to deal with large market shocks and changes. And it is not surprising that the various players in the field reflected on the best way forward. So there were reports of what had happened on DNB's supervision (report Scheltema). Politicians came up with an examination (de Wit), largely a rehashing of international reports. The banks founded a Maas Committee that emphasized in the final report the importance of good governance, stronger risk management and a more integrated assessment of societal interests. And the Ministry of Finance started thinking about a supervisory policy version 0.1 or 1.0.

What surprised me was how the discussion on the desired culture-change at DNB took place. This followed from the report Scheltema, but everyone could know that for such a change to have effect, it is necessary to embed it in a good institutional structure and to be supported and spearheaded by a good leader: the President himself. I looked with increasing astonishment at the senseless rush that was displayed by all actors in the play. Within one month an implementation plan for cultural change should be made. And while DNB met this request of parliament without complaint, it goes without saying that this will have absolutely no effect whatsoever. Because the President, spearheading the change, was going to be replaced in a years time.

While in the Netherlands we were discussing and pondering the above, our Government fell apart in February 2010, which meant that no ravishing or fundamental changes could be expected. Still, it appeared that our Ministry of Finance had decided that their links to supervisors AFM and DNB should be strengthened. So they colluded with Members of Parliament to obtain the discretion to guide and demand action from supervisors (without the realization that the WFT does not really allow them such an action). Furthermore, the Minister of Finance quickly said he was changing the appointment rules for Presidents to a maximum of one re-election. In doing so he inelegantly and unnecessarily bruised Wellink. And our Minister became more responsible for the succession planning at DNB, which requires a forward-looking approach.

The appointment process of the President and directors of the Dutch central bank (DNB)
What I noticed last year is that the tone of voice and the noise-level of publicity by the AFM appeared to decrease, already while Hoogervorst was still running the AFM. The penalties for banks were lower and the public reactions of banks with respect to the behavior of the AFM were milder. Hoogervorst was sent on (or perhaps: off) to his beloved international work. And at the same time the Ministry of Finance appointed his Treasurer, Ronald Gerritsen as the new Chairman at the AFM. Which brings the Ministry of Finance closer to the fire. 

As for DNB, there is of course the weekly lunch-meeting de Jager and Wellink. I imagine that early-on they discussed how to organise the succession. And it must have been obvious that Hoogduin was the intended successor, as such a preference (of the Supervisory Board) doesn’t suddenly fall from a blue sky down. Yet, both Wellink and De Jager will have noted that Hoogduin had little track record in Bank Supervision. And my idea is that the Ministry of Finance proposed a division of responsibilities between supervisory and monetary policy, so that Hoogduin could be appointed as new president of DNB. And that part of the succession planning proceeded nicely: Parliament agreed with the idea and we moved on.

But then, in May things suddenly went wrong. The discussion on succession hit the streets, the public and parliament. This surprised me, but also allowed me a moment to share my views on my preference. But the Members of Parliament did not want Hoogduin to be the next DNB-President as he was no outsider and could thus not be the one to spearhead the culture change at DNB. And then, one of the three candidates, Kremers, also stepped out of the race. To him, the Supervisory Board of DNB was unable to outline clearly what his position would be (no doubt this was a discussion on the relationship between the President and the almost independent director of Bank Supervision at the DNB).

What struck me was that we were very much running out of time. It was May, while we needed a President as of July. And you don’t want to be choosing your next central bank President in such a time-squeeze (it seems that shows such as Idols and X-factor even use more time to pick their winner). Anyway, we went through somewhat indistinct and misty weeks, to find out that one of the other top officials of Finance, Knot (who has a DNB-ring to him as he worked their for many years) will become our next President at DNB. With former Crown-prince Hoogduin choosing to leave, because he undoubtedly envisaged his future to be different than it now had become.

The net effect of all this fiddling: there are suddenly two new directors and a new President at DNB as of July 1, 2011. And do note that Klaas Knot is not really an outsider. He originally worked for the Insurance Supervisor and had a quick career at DNB for some 10 years. He became the right-hand advisor of Wellink in his international meetings/work. And a number of years ago he was appointed as a top-civil servant at the Ministry of Finance, possibly as part of a master plan in which Wellink arranged his long-term succession (or simply just took good care of the career of his closest advisor). Now, with the butterfingered public discussion on the succession and role of Hoogduin underway, the choice for Klaas Knot was advanced in time (he might have been on the schedule to succeed Hoogduin). And my guess is that the lack of enthousiasm of Knot for internal and organisational matters may have led him to outline that he didn’t wish to take up the ‘internal affairs’ portfolio of Hoogduin as a part of his role of President.

What struck me is that perhaps Kees van Dijkhuizen and Nout Wellink may have still played important roles behind the curtains. The new director supervision of DNB is currently working for NIBC, (the same bank where van Dijkhuizen is CFO). So both Wellink and van Dijkhuizen, may have each supported their trusted candidates/protegees in view of their qualities. And those qualities certainly do not need to be questioned as the competences of both Knot and Sijbrand speak for themselves.

What I do have a concern about, is that the new management at DNB may get a structure that was focused on the old idea of Hoogduin as the new President. And there now is a separation of the domain of internal affairs and organisation (Eldersohn), Bank Supervision (Sijbrand) and general management and monetary affairs (the President). If the DNB-improvement for the future lies in a cultural change, it is clear that this requires leadership from the future President. But that President is not directly responsible; his two Directors are. And that is a rather unfortunate organizational setting. Furthermore, Knot may not be willing to tighten the knots for his old colleagues when doing the cultural/organisation change. Nevertheless, with sufficient quality, coordination and perhaps a good fresh breeze in the organisation as a result of the new Director Supervision, we should just hope for the best.

Incidentally, I should also mention that the Supervisory Board has not made any statement at all. It appears to me that the unhealthy intervention of the Ministry of Finance with respect to the succession of the President (not a minor job) does not bode well for the future. And this is the same Ministry that formally provides the Supervisory Board with very strong powers in the future. In my view, it is strange to have a Ministry doing your job as the Supervisory Board, so I am amazed that none of them respond or resign. It’s a stunning silence that we can witness, which seems to imply that the Supervisory Board Members rather stick to the status and prestige of being the DNB-Supervisory Board Member than to the content of their job: ensure proper governance at DNB.

Conclusion: butterfingered fiddling with an aftertaste of sprouts...
If we look at the importance of proper supervision and a good central bank in a country, we must realize that DNB is a central element of the most vital (financial) infrastructure in the Netherlands. And that means we must do our utmost best to maintain this infrastructure and to ensure that is and will be functioning properly. I am therefore quite surprised about:
- the lack of debate on financial supervision and resulting institutional structure (the right for a Minister to mandate specific action to the Supervisor is absolutely undesirable),
- the faulty structure imposed on DNB (the split of responsibilities between supervisory director and president, the unworkable role for the Supervisory Board)
- the stunning silence that from the Supervisory Board, now that their preferred candidate has not been chosen and decided to leave,
- the outright poor planning, timing and limited secrecy surrounding the reappointment process. The fact that the process became public domain didn’t do anyone good and was quite awkward to observe, leaving some of the people involved with a bit of a stain on their image.

We can conclude that we have now effectively already built in the core structural weaknesses that will give rise to future incidents with respect to DNB and Bank Supervision. It's all quite embarassing given that the essence of government is planning and designing ahead in order to prevent incidents and structural weaknesses, rather than to ensure them.

For now I am left with a sense of shame about how we have executed this succession planning process in the Netherlands. If my English vocabulary and Google Translate are correct I could qualify this as a major bit of butterfingered fiddling that leaves an aftertaste of our beloved Dutch sprouts. It makes me realize that the Netherlands is too small in size and population to be able to achieve the proper professional levels necessary that suit a mature democracy and financial market. That is a bit depressing, but that’s the way it is.

Of course the biggest role of the Netherlands in the financial world stems from the Golden Age. And since then we were in decline until former President Vissering lifted us up by his international stature and authority. Similarly, Duisenberg was special and President Wellink has done an incredible good job (although in the end hindered by a monoculture within his own organization). But alas, if we continue conducting ourselves the way we have been doing recently, we can be certain to slide away into a pragmatist way of doing that certainly does not justify a place at the international financial conference tables.

With only ourselves to blame for that.