Productivity growth across countries across time

This tweet caught my eye this morning.

The chart is from the latest weekly column from Martin Wolf, the economics columnist for the Financial Times.   It is a sobering reminder of what has been happening among economies rather nearer the frontier: productivity growth recently isn’t what it once was (even if the 50s and 60s are hardly representative historical decades).

But, of course, my main interest is in New Zealand.  And for OECD countries I prefer to use OECD data (which go back only to 1970).    Here is what a similar version of the chart above looks like using OECD data and adding Australia, Canada and New Zealand.   As with the chart above, I’ve ordered the countries from high to low based on average productivity growth in the most recent period (in this case, the last five years).

Real GDP phw OECD

In that most recent period (and, actually, for this decade as a whole) France has had the fastest productivity growth –  not something I’d have guessed –  and New Zealand brings up last place.  It isn’t that the green bar is missing for New Zealand, just that the average annual growth rate on this measure was 0.0 per cent. (Using my preferred measure of labour productivity growth, updated to include this morning’s release we do a little better for the last five years –  we come second to last (ahead of Italy) instead.)

And, of course, the pattern for New Zealand is a little different because we had that truly dreadful decade in the 1970s, when our productivity growth was clearly the worst in the entire OECD.

But here is how we’ve done simply relative to the G7 group as a whole.

NZ and G7 gdp phw

In not a single period has our productivity growth rate matched that of the G7 grouping as a whole.  We came close in the 1980s, but couldn’t match those leading industrial countries even then.  (And for the most recent period that conclusion holds even if use my preferred measure of New Zealand labour productivity.)   And whereas back in 1970, the level of labour productivity in New Zealand was very similar to that for the OECD as a whole, those growth differences cumulate, and now the G7 group has labour productivity just over 50 per cent higher than that in New Zealand.

Is something better possible?   Well, there is a loose relationship suggesting (as one might expect) that countries that had a lower starting level of labour productivity were also those with relatively faster productivity growth in recent years.  Catch-up can and does occur.   There were 10 OECD countries –  more than a quarter of the membership –  which had faster productivity growth than France over the last five years, often materially faster.    All of them were small.

That could have been New Zealand too –  after all, we now start so far behind the leading bunch –  but policy choices by successive governments (much the same regardless of which party occupies the 9th floor of the Beehive) meant it wasn’t so, and left us vying with places like Italy, Portugal and Greece (even the UK) for the unwanted poor performer award.

 

Making short-term foreign labour more readily available

There were, and still are, people who thought Labour and New Zealand First went into the last election campaigning on policies to materially and sustainably reduce the very high rates of non-citizen immigration to New Zealand.  (There were no such doubts about the Greens: after James Shaw in 2016 gave a fairly thoughtful and moderate speech on the issue there was a great backlash from his own supporters and he had to recant and do a very public form of penance.)

But what of Labour and New Zealand First?  It seems that under Andrew Little Labour had become quite concerned about immigration and thought there were votes in suggesting that “something should be done”.   But as I pointed out when their 2017 immigration policy specifics were released, whatever impression they wanted to create, any measures they were proposing would have reduced the net inflow for one year only.  Some of those proposals had some merit in their own right, but they were playing at the margin, while allowing Labour to associate itself with numbers of a 25000-30000 reduction in net migration.   Labour is quite correct to claim that they never set that as a target (it was a forecast, about what difference they thought their proposals would make), but they never owned up to the fact that any reduction would be one-off, not permanent.     Either way, even before the election –  after the change of leadership –  they were backing away from even their own published policy (checking old emails, I found one from a week out from the election in which a senior and well-connected journalist told me that Ardern and Lees-Galloway had taken a conscious decision to downplay the issue).

As for New Zealand First, there was occasional talk of reducing net migration to 10000 to 15000 per annum but (a) it wasn’t in their immigration policy, and (b) not much specific was.  Both parties seemed to want to create the impression that they would “do something” (note that National had actually “done something” –  albeit fairly modest – that year) without actually offering much in the way of specific commitments.  NZ First, of course, has 25+ years of form in that respect.    I guess not many voters read the specifics of manifestos (although media should) and so it is hard to have much sympathy for the parties when people now look at what the government is (and isn’t) doing and suggest that it doesn’t really square with the impression they were happy to create pre-election.

At times, it is hard to know quite what they are doing.   Actual residence visa approvals for the year to August were 34863, the lowest annual rate this century.   But that isn’t supported by any high-level policy changes and from all the accounts of massive backlogs of applications at MBIE –  having reduced its processing capacity –  it isn’t clear that it is deliberate (and if it is deliberate, it is a pretty callous way to do things, leaving applicants hanging uncertainly with indefinite delays).  And on the other hand, the number of Essential Skills visas approved in the year to August was a record high, and about twice as many as were being approved five or six years ago.  On MBIE’s figures there are almost 200000 people here with short-term work visas (consistent with that OECD comment that New Zealand has one of the highest –  perhaps the highest –  shares of short-term foreign workers of any OECD country).

But yesterday we got some specifics from the government in the form of a new policy on temporary work visas.  In thinking and writing about New Zealand immigration policy, my focus is on the residence approval programme –  which is what drives the longer-term contribution of immigration to population growth –  rather than the shorter-term visa programmes.  But reading through what the government released yesterday, it was hard not to call it a triumph for the business community (short-term) at the expense of New Zealanders (those two aren’t necessarily in conflict of course, it is just that there is no evidence that New Zealand’s liberal immigration policies have done New Zealanders any good).  As the Newsroom article this morning puts it

As soon as the embargo lifted on the Immigration Minister’s announcement on Tuesday, positive press releases flooded in from industry associations whose employers rely on imported labour, including Federated Farmers, Horticulture NZ, Business NZ and New Zealand Aged Care Association.

They see it as a win for employers who will be able to employ overseas workers with greater ease, after passing the initial tests.

Here is the overview document the government published.

Several things struck me.

First, the government and its advisers appear to have little use for economics (yes, some of you may think that to their credit),  What do I have in mind?     There was this, for example, the very first bullet point in the entire document

Ensure that temporary foreign workers are only recruited for genuine shortages, and that employers across New Zealand can access the skills and labour they need;

When there are incipient shortages of tomatoes or lettuces (storms etc) or even houses, the price goes up.   The market then more or less clears and in most cases at the new prevailing prices there are no “genuine shortages”, rather supply and demand adjust to the signal in the price. We see that this week in global oil markets.

But neither central planners in MBIE nor their political masters –  nor much of the business community, when it comes to inputs –  are keen on that sort of approach.  They prefer a model in which wages don’t rise much because whenever there is an incipient shortage –  which would otherwise trigger wage rises –  the employer can find another migrant worker.   A good deal for firms if they get the system rigged in their favour like that, and compromising, in that any firm that had qualms about whether this was really right, couldn’t really take a stand and refuse to get involved or they really would be rendered less competitive than other firms in their sector.

And there was this in a section on “Why the government is making these changes”

The Government is committed to ensuring that regions are able to get the workers they need to fill critical skill shortages, particularly during a time of low unemployment.

Where they show no sign of realising that –  as economists in New Zealand have known for decades – increased immigration has the short-term effect (perhaps lasting several years) of adding more to demand (including demand for labour) than to supply, thus exacerbating capacity pressures in aggregate, not relieving them.   Yes, an individual firm in a sector heavily reliant on immigrant labour might be made better off, but across the whole economy it is no fix at all.  (And if the intuition of this point isn’t obvious, fortunately we mostly don’t import dirt-poor illegals living 20 to a house, so new immigrant workers need houses, shops, offices, schools, roads etc much as you or I do, and building all those things takes real resources – including labour.)

There is a strange mix of central planner tendences and genuine liberalisation at work in the package.  I guess the government would defend that on the grounds of a strong central government hand around lower-paid migrants and more liberalisation for somewhat higher paid roles (the spin is about “highly paid” or “very highly paid” jobs, but that isn’t really so at all).  On the central planner side, there were things like this

The recently announced Regional Skills Leadership Groups will play a key role in informing government and regional responses to local labour market needs. Each Regional Skills Leadership Group will develop a labour market plan for its region to identify the availability of skills and labour in their region and any gaps that need to be addressed to help drive the region’s economic growth.

Or one could use market price signals and the resulting internal resource flows.  But the government believes bureaucrats and local worthies (business leaders with their own interests to advance?) will do it so much better.

Still on the central planner side, industries that are heavily reliant on migrant labour are to be subjected “Sector Agreements”

Sector Agreements will be negotiated with sectors that have a high reliance on temporary foreign workers (especially in lower-paid occupations). Employers who are recruiting foreign workers for occupations covered by a Sector Agreement will be required to comply with the agreement. Sector Agreements will support facilitated access to foreign workers to meet shortages in the short term by making this a more certain and lower-cost process. In exchange, the sector will be required to make commitments and demonstrate progress towards placing a greater share of New Zealanders into jobs in the sector and reducing the sector’s reliance on temporary foreign workers over time.

But there is a great deal of time-inconsistency about all this.  In the short-term, rest homes, road freight etc, will get “more certain and lower cost” access to migrant workers, and yet the sectors will supposedly be signing up to commitments to reduce future reliance on such workers. It will be interesting to see the details of the first such agreements (due mid-2020) but count me sceptical about whether any government will be willing to follow through and actually insist on reduced reliance on temporary foreign workers, having initially made them even easier to get.  All those lobbies will be moaning and complaining five years hence just as they are now.    Much better to put in place some clear and graduated price signals now.

The other area of central planners’ conceit in the document is the distinction between “the regions” and five of the six largest cities (for some reason Tauranga misses out on promotion to big boy status).  This continues the incoherence of the previous government’s approach, offering more residency points for jobs outside the big cities, in the process (almost as a matter of arithmetic) lowering the average quality of the people given residence visas.

Under yesterday’s package

The requirement to undertake a labour market test will be removed entirely for employers in the regions (outside the major cities) seeking to employ foreign workers who will be paid above the median wage. This gives open access to employers in the regions recruiting for jobs paying above the median wage. This means there is no need for skill shortages lists in the regions and the skill shortages lists will only exist for the five following cities – Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. If a job in a city is on that city’s skills shortage list there will be no labour market test; if it is not on the list then there will be a labour market test (that is, the employer must advertise the job with the pay rate).

There is no attempt at a justification for this differentiation between, say, Tauranga and Hamilton, or Queenstown and Dunedin, or even between Kawerau and Auckland.   It simply continues the planner mentality –  even if we might count getting rid of (bureacrat-determined) “skill shortage lists” in some places as a modest gain in its own right.

And from a Labour-led government –  supposedly focused on “the workers”(especially less well-off), surely it evokes a hollow laugh when they release documents talking of people earning $52000 a year as “highly-paid”.      Such has been the increase in the minimum wage over recent years –  no relationship at all to productivity gains –  that Labour now class as “highly paid” anyone earning only 40 per cent above the minimum wage.

The final bit of the package that caught my eye was this

The Government will reinstate the ability for lower-paid foreign workers to support their partner and children to come to New Zealand for the length of their visa. This was restricted in 2017. The foreign worker will continue to need to meet a minimum income threshold, the purpose of which is to ensure that their income is sufficient to support themselves and their family while in New Zealand.

….Dependent children of a lower-paid worker will have access to primary and secondary education as subsidised domestic students. They will only be able to access tertiary education as full fee-paying international students.

I guess we should be thankful for small mercies re that final sentence.  But really…..the government makes it “more certain and lower-cost” to bring in relatively low-paid migrant workers, and then –  even if there were real economic gains from that particular “trade” –  dramatically erodes those possibilities by allowing such (supposedly) temporary workers to bring spouses and children.   Given the failure of the government to anything serious about fixing the urban land and housing market, that will put further indirect pressure on the housing market (and associated infrastructure) and the (substantial) fiscal cost of any school education for the children of such workers has to be set against the (inevitably modest, in a low-skilled worker) wider economic benefits to New Zealand of the parent being able to work here.

You can see some elements of sense in some of what the government is doing in elements of this package.  Perhaps the “sector agreements” are really well-intentioned, even if they seem most likely to be ineffectual over time in reducing the dependence on these sectors on modestly-paid modestly-skilled short-term foreign workers.    And, in principle, the absence of a “labour market test” for really highly paid or specialist positions makes quite a lot of sense.  But, even in this struggling economy, it is a sick and sad joke to talk of pay rates in excess of $52000 as “highly paid”.  More importantly, there is nothing in the system designed to set a financial incentive for firms to employ locals.

I continue to champion my own model, which I’ve run in various previous speeches and posts.   For work visas, at all levels of skill, in all regions, I would apply something like the following model

Institute work visa provisions that are:

a. Capped in length of time (a single maximum term of three years, with at least a year overseas before any return on a subsequent work visa).

b. Subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum or 20 per cent of the employee’s annual income (whichever is greater).

Doing so would largely get officials completely out of the approvals process (although not from enforcement), would treat all regions equally, and would provide a strong –  and transparent –  incentive to hire (and develop) locals, and bid up wages for locals, where at all possible, while providing easier access (than any government has allowed) where a short-term foreign worker may really be necessary in the short-term.   And the fee would ensure that even if there were no other benefits to New Zealanders as a whole, at least the public finances would benefit directly.

The much bigger issue, of course, is the residence approvals programme.  The government is supposed to be having announcements on that front before the end of the year,

 

NZ’s company tax rate: enforcement and investment

Last week I wrote briefly about a short presentation, at a Victoria University event, by tax blogger (and former Treasury/IRD official, former adviser to the Tax Working Group) Andrea Black on what should be done with the company tax rate.  Andrea argued that it should be raised, both to collect more tax from the “rich” and to reduce the evident opportunities for avoiding or deferring tax that differential rates for company, personal, and trust income creates.

Since what I wrote about that was buried in the middle of a long post, I reproduce the relevant section here

I wasn’t really persuaded.  With dividend imputation, the company tax rate in New Zealand bears much more heavily on foreign investors (none of whom needs to be here) than it does on domestic shareholders.  In a country with low rates of business investment and now relatively low rates of foreign investment, it seems cavalier to be calling for increases in company tax rates which the global trend is clearly downwards (at 33 per cent the company tax rate would be the second highest in the OECD).   In defence of her position, Andrea invoked some old IRD analysis that company tax cuts haven’t made much difference to investment –    IRD has a strong institutional bias towards a simple tax system and little real focus on productivity, economic performance or anything of the sort – while noting that “if you did care about foreign investors” –  there were various technical tweaks (I didn’t catch them, but perhaps thin capital rules?) that could be adjusted to compensate them at least in part.

As if to forestall a question, Andrea alluded to this chart I’ve used several times –  a version of which appeared in the TWG’s own background document last year.

corp tax 2017

Prima facie, it didn’t look as though – by international standards – we were undertaxing business income.

Now, of course, there are some well-recognised caveats to this data.  First, it doesn’t take account of dividend imputation in New Zealand (and Australia, but not elsewhere), and the TWG suggested there were some issues around consistency of treatment of government-owned businesses.  On the other hand, in many countries lots of shares are owned by long-term savings vehicles with much less onerous tax provisions than their peers in New Zealand would have, and our tax system (mercifully) has fewer deductions and “holes” in it.     In yesterday’s presentation Andrea suggested that in many other countries various classes of business income that would be incorporated –  and thus captured in the chart – here wouldn’t be treated the same way in other countries.

All that said, if anyone is seriously suggesting that the chart of OECD data is substantially misleading about the New Zealand position –  say that in truth we might be in the lower half of the chart on an apples-for-apples comparison, the onus is probably on them to demonstrate that more specifically.    The OECD data itself suggests we have taxed businesses quite heavily going back 50 years, to (for example) well before imputation was ever on the scene (chart in this post).  Perhaps it is just coincidence – and I’m certainly not suggesting it is the only factor –  that business investment as a share of GDP has been low by OECD standards throughout almost all that period.

In a comment on my post, Andrea clarified that it was changes to the thin-capitalisation rules she had in mind to mitigate adverse effects on foreign investors.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that New Zealand shareholders shouldn’t be able to shelter income in companies in a way that means that some forms of flow capital income are taxed more lightly than others.  For small closely-held companies, for example, I can see a certain logic to a mandatory distribution of profits (which could then be simultaneously reinvested).

When I heard Andrea’s brief presentation last week, I hadn’t seen her initial post on the issue.   It is worth reading and she presents what looks like persuasive indications that there is more of an issue here than (for example) some people who commented on my post or got in touch privately might have suggested.   For example

Except that overdrawn current account balances – loans from the company to the shareholders- have been similarly growing too. Now sitting at about $25 billion.

And yes this all started from about 2010. And what happened in 2010? Why dear readers the company tax rate was cut to 28% while the trust rate remained at 33%.

Last night Andrea put out a further post on the issue, prompted (it appeared) by my post last week.    It is also worth reading, repeating some of the earlier material but also extending her argument.   For example, in dealing with the foreign investment issues she now suggests another possible response

If the focus was New Zealanders owning closely held New Zealand businesses, an adjustment could be made either by increasing the thin capitalisation debt percentage or making a portion – most likely 5/33 – of the imputation credit refundable on distribution.

I’ll leave you to read Andrea’s case. On its own terms, it makes a fair amount of sense on her terms (and she is much more expert on tax detail than I am) but I want to focus on the issue through a different lens.

Thus, take for example the line –  which apparently originates with IRD –  that we’ve had no more foreign investment since the company tax rate was cut.   Well, here is a chart of New Zealand company tax rate relative to the median OECD country’s company tax rate (OECD data that take account of sub-national taxes as well).

coy tax oecd

The story of the century, around company tax, is that the gap has been widening between our company tax and those in other advanced countries (with the two local cuts just temporarily closing the gap a bit). At the start of the century, our company tax rate was around the median for the OECD countries, and in 2019 it is just over 4 percentage points higher.  (One could add that the global environment for business investment seems to have been pretty poor over the last decade, not least in New Zealand.)

At present, our company tax rate –  the one that counts for foreign investors –  is just above the upper quartile.

coy tax 2

Andrea’s proposal would give us the highest company tax rate in the OECD.   One could adopt the clever wheezes she suggests to limit any adverse effect on foreign investors of raising the rate but (a) our statutory rate is already (now) at the upper end of the scale, and (b) our company tax regime is generally regarded as fewer holes and deduction possibilities etc than many of those in other countries.

And it isn’t as if business investment has been present in abundance in New Zealand.   This chart is from an OECD review of New Zealand from a few years ago.bus I oecd 2011.png

Focus on that bottom right panel.  The only time business investment as a share of GDP was above that for the median OECD country for a few years was during Think Big – the spectacular government-led misallocation of capital.  And recall that for at least the last 25 years, our population growth has been well above that of the median OECD country, so that all else equal one might have expected more of current GDP to be devoted to investment.

I’ve seen –  but can’t now find –  the OECD data for these graphs back to the 1960s and the picture is similar,  What about the more recent period?

“Business investment” is calculated as a residual. Take gross fixed capital formation and subtract investment spending on new housing and general government investment spending.  When I use OECD data for cross-country tables, I usually take care to check their New Zealand data against what is on the SNZ website.  In this case, GDP, GFCF, and dwellings investment are all identical in the two places, but the general government investment numbers are somewhat different.  So in this chart, comparing business investment as a share of GDP for New Zealand with that for the median OECD country, I’ve shown the New Zealand numbers estimated both ways (ie using OECD and SNZ gen govt investment data).

bus I NZ

Whichever line you use, business investment in New Zealand (per cent of GDP) has been materially below that of the median OECD country in most/all years, despite having had population/employment growth far faster than that of the median OECD country.

I am not, repeat not, suggesting that our company tax rate –  or the broader tax regime for capital income –  is the only factor, or even necesssarily the most important factor, in our weak business investment (and terrible productivity growth) record.   Simply that if any government were ever seriously concerned about those failures –  and wouldn’t that be a novelty –  raising the company tax rate looks as though it would be a step in the wrong direction.     If anything, in my view we should be taxing capital income less heavily.  No business has to invest – and no foreign investor has to invest here –  and if you want more of something it isn’t usually a good place to start to tax it more heavily.

And to end on a note that seems to me to –  at least on paper – better balance fairness and efficiency/opportunity, here is my final paragraph about that seminar last week at which Andrea spoke.

I remain tantalised by the idea of a progressive consumption tax. In the abstract, it gets around all the debates on capital gains taxes, realisations (or not), company taxes, gift or inheritance taxes or whatever, and has the appealing the feature of taxing people on what they consume not on what they produce.  Of course, no country runs such a system –  which does have formidable practical issues.   And if one wants to align company and personal rates – which has some appeal (although the Nordic model questions that), better to lower the personal income tax rates by 5 percentage points (max rate to 28 per cent) and add a Social Security Tax of 5 percentage points on labour income up to a certain threshold.  New Zealand and Australia are, as I understand it, the only OECD countries not to adopt some such model (we do it on a very small scale with ACC).

 

Recalling Jian Yang’s past: questions for him and his leader

It was two years ago last Friday that Newsroom and the Financial Times jointly broke the story of National list MP Jian Yang’s past, as a Chinese Communist Party member and fifteen years spent as a trainer in the PLA military intelligence system.   There was a strong suggestion that he had been removed from Parliament’s foreign affairs committee after the New Zealand security services discovered his past and had drawn it to the attention of the then Prime Minister.    Anne-Marie Brady’s Magic Weapons working paper was released at about the same time, highlighting the extent of PRC attempts to influence, or interfere in, affairs in New Zealand.

A bit more of Jian Yang’s story seeped out over the following few months, including his residency application documents for New Zealand, in which –  so he later acknowledged –  he had actively chosen to misrepresent his past, (so he also told us) on the instructions of Beijing.      There was also rather more confirmation of just how close to the PRC Embassy in New Zealand Jian Yang is and was –  leading one serious government relations type, with a diplomatic background, to go on record stating that he was always very careful what he said around Jian Yang (and Raymond Huo, once again a Labour MP).   The implication –  never stated directly –  was that whatever was said around him might well end up in the hands of the PRC Embassy.  At the time, of course, Jian Yang was full member of the government caucus, and although Cabinets often keeps their own caucuses in the dark about some things, caucus members generally know more than you or I do about what the government is up to, or is thinking.

But after that brief flurry the issue died down.    Labour and the Greens showed no interest in questioning whether someone of that background, never once heard to utter a word of criticism of the PRC, should really be serving in our Parliament.  National closed ranks behind Jian Yang –  not once in the subsequent two years has a single past or present National MP expressed as much as an iota of concern.   And Jian Yang went quiet, simply refusing to talk at all to any English-language media (despite English being the first language of most of National’s voters), but only too happy to talk to quiescent regime-complicit Chinese language outlets.   If you can get away with it –  and have all the morals that must have accompanied CCP membership and service with PLA military intelligence –  I suppose why would you do anything else?  People –  all of us – respond to incentives and –  given his actual background –  simply going to ground and staying there must have looked quite the most attractive option.

Optimists –  naive ones perhaps –  wondered if perhaps National, embarrassed to have been caught out, would gradually sideline Jian Yang and he’d eventually quietly step aside by the next election, perhaps to be replaced with another regime-sympathetic,  well-connected, good-with-the-donors recent migrant, but one without such an uncomfortable back story.

Silly them (well, in my optimistic moments perhaps I was one of them).

For Jian Yang is still with us.  Still not talking to the English-language media (except a few comments in his rather ineffectual service as National’s spokesman on Statistics), still sharing an office in Auckland with fellow list MP (and now National’s Finance spokesman) Paul Goldsmith, recently promoted to chair the (not overly important) Governance and Administration Committee of Parliament, still in business with National Party president (and regime cheerleader) Peter Goodfellow), and……most recently, accompanying Simon Bridges on his trip to the PRC, including that gruesomely awful fawning interview with CGTN (saying what so much of the rest of the New Zealand establishment only support in practice by their silence) and his meeting with Guo Shengkun, the Politburo member responsible for the entire apparatus of repression (“law and order”) in the PRC, including the concentration camps in Xinjiang.   Yes, it was a big week for Jian Yang.  If Simon Bridges wasn’t just regurgitating briefing notes from Jian Yang, he might as well have been.  The Embassy will have been pleased.   Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jian Yang was out in the media (Chinese language only) praising his leader for his praise of the CCP  (Raymond Huo was also out praising Bridges, at least until he deleted the relevant tweet).

And not a peep out of any other political party expressing any concern about Jian Yang (or Bridges).

That tawdry episode –  Bridges abasing himself before the PRC, aided and abetted by their own (former) man now sitting in his caucus –  was a bit much for Daisy Lee, an independent researcher born and raised in the PRC, and now living in Auckland.  (There was some background on Daisy and her husband –  he’d been a Tiananmen Square protestor in 1989 –  in this Sunday Star-Times article.)  Daisy has written an article on Jian Yang and his place in the National Party, and asked if I would run it here.  I helped her with some of the English, but it is her text, her stories, and her challenges to Jian Yang (and, at least by implication) to the National Party.

Of his residency application, she reminds us

In this nine-page document, Jian Yang declared that the whole period from 1978 until 1993, the year he departed for Australia was spent solely at one school, Luoyang University.

But the facts reveal, and Jian Yang later acknowledged, that the relevant certificates are falsely made to cover up his total 15 years with the two military universities, the PLA Air Force Engineering Institute and Luoyang PLA University of Foreign Language. The notarised document in both Chinese and English declares that Jian Yang enrolled in Luoyang University in 1978. But a simple search – Wikipedia or the Chinese Baidu – indicates that that university wasn’t even founded until 1980.

Jian Yang eventually told us that Beijing instructed him to misrepresent his past, but never explained the notarised certificate. It won’t be just anyone who has the authority to instruct a state-owned university to issue a series of false documents just to satisfy a request from an ordinary Chinese citizen. Chinese intelligence authorities perhaps?

It is commonly understood among the Chinese community that an active serviceman in China is not allowed to emigrate overseas, and does not even have an ordinary citizen’s passport.

The sort of thing that should bother the National Party, you’d once have hoped.

Jian Yang seems to spend a great deal of time with regime-sympathetic Chinese in New Zealand.  Daisy asks about others from the PRC.

In the past two years I have seen Jian Yang’s smiling face on his sign displayed on Auckland’s Great South Road. The same smile I have seen in pictures of a number of occasions including him meeting Politburo member Guo Shengkun on his recent trip to China with Simon Bridges, and his visit to the new PRC consul general in Auckland with the National Party’s president Peter Goodfellow in July.

I hope that one day Jian Yang will smile on some other groups from China. Among the Chinese diaspora they include Falun Gong practitioners and human rights activists. They also include the Xinjiang Uyghurs, exiled Tibetans, and members of house churches in China. Most of them fled to New Zealand to escape persecution. Many don’t speak much English and so aren’t easily about to tell their stories to National’s leaders.

Meanwhile, these same people see Simon Bridges and Jian Yang meeting with Guo Shengkun. From a regime keen to suggest to Chinese diasporas that they are not beyond Beijing’s reach, what sort of chilling message must that send?

Even among those with less immediate reason to fear

I could have chosen not to write this article, but the embarrassment of Simon Bridges’ performance in the staged interview with CGTN, the CCP’s English-language mouthpiece, has led me to decide to give Jian Yang a chance.

A chance to stop encouraging and assisting New Zealand politicians like Simon Bridges to worship the brutal regime and people like its representative Guo Shengkun, one of the most powerful figures in the CCP who is responsible for all of the religious and political repression apparatus. To stop praising the CCP. And to stop hiding from the local English-language media, or anyone who might ask awkward questions.

Over the last two to three decades, there have been significantly increasing numbers of Chinese who have moved overseas and the majority of these immigrants are well educated middle class and business people. The main reason for them to leave China is that they hated the corruption, pollution, and suppression which are all the problems caused by the CCP’s 70 years in power.

It is naive to believe pro-CCP politicians can receive more votes from their Chinese constituents for praising Xi and Guo, or for being silent about a brutal regime that continues to corrupt and repress their families and relatives in China.

(Daisy might be right about that, although evidence to date suggests it is a rather good values-free fundraising strategy.)

She ends

The next election is approaching and the public deserve better answers from Jian Yang.

The full article is here.

One can only agree that there are hard questions that Jian Yang should answer.

But personally I reckon Peter Goodfellow and successive National Party leaders (Key, English, and Bridges) are now –  fixed with knowledge – just as culpable, if not more so and shouldn’t be allowed off the hook.  For the earlier leaders, the questions should be along the lines of “what did you know and when did you know it?” and “what steps did you take to ensure that as an MP Jian Yang is operating only in the interests of New Zealand, not those of the PRC?”   For Bridges, why do regard it as appropriate to have a (former?) CCP member, former longserving member of the PLA military intelligence system, who has never said a word of criticism of the PRC or the CCP, and who remains very close to the PRC Embassy as a serving member of your caucus?  Would you be willing to have Jian Yang serving as a minister in a future National government (and if not, why not)?  And so on.    The questions could usefully be extended to all current National MPs, every single one of whom was elected in 2017 (or came in on the list since) knowing they would serve with Jian Yang, and not one of whom has been willing to express even a scintilla of public concern or unease  (perhaps someone has had private concerns, but after this amount of time private concerns count for little or nothing –  as members of Parliament you have a higher duty than to mere “caucus discipline”).

And then, of course, we could extend the questions to the Prime Minister and to the leaders of the Green Party.  Why, for example, have you expressed precisely no concern about this individual –  with such a questionable background –  serving in New Zealand’s Parliament?  And, of course, Winston Peters who did once express some concern, but no longer does so.  Beijing probably wouldn’t like it if he did –  nor, probably, would the Prime Minister.

And, of course, there are the agencies –  MBIE and DIA –  that gave Jian Yang residency and citizenship on the basis of false documents.  Is anything ever going to be done.  If not, why not?

Are there any values that guide our political class around the PRC?   Fear and opportunism don’t count.

There has been a very robust debate in Australia over the last week or so about the regime affiliations of new Liberal backbencher Gladys Liu (lots of extracts from various perspectives here).     Seems to me that although there are legitimate and important questions to ask about Gladys Liu, what has emerged to date raises far fewer questions than Jian Yang’s position should.  And yet the media and the political classes passed over in silence the two-year anniversary of learning of Jian Yang’s background, serving one of the most dreadful regimes on the planet, none of it recanted, even as he himself chose to join his leader in print praising the Party.   They will be happy in Beijing.   Could they have imagined on 1 October 1949 having such a quiescent and compromised dependency in the South Pacific only 70 years later?

The rest of us –  ethnic Chinese and otherwise – should be alarmed, by Jian Yang himself and by those who continue to make space for him to serve in New Zealand’s Parliament consciously choosing to ignore (or even embrace) how compromised he appears to be.

 

Monetary policy and the yield curve slope

A month or so ago there was a great flurry of media coverage when the US interest rate yield curve “inverted”.  In this case, long-term government security interest rates (10-year government bond yield) moved below short-term government security interest rates (three month Treasury bill yield).   This was the sort of chart that sparked all the interest.

US yield curve

The grey bars are US recessions, and each time the long rate has been less than the short-term rate a recession has followed.   This chart only goes back to 1982 but it works back to at least the end of the 1960s.    There haven’t been any recessions not foreshadowed by this indicator, and there haven’t been times when the yield curve inverted and a recession did not come along subsequently (sometimes 12-18 months later).   Who knows what will happen this time.  It is, after all, a small sample (seven recessions, seven inversions since the late 1960s), and there is nothing sacrosanct (or theoretically-grounded) in using a 10 year bond rate.  Use the US 20 or 30 year government bond yields and right now the curve wouldn’t even be (quite) inverted.

But there are good reasons why changes in the slope of the yield curve might offer some information.  A long-term bond rate isn’t (usually) controlled by the central bank or government and might have a fair amount of information about what normal or neutral interest rates are in the economy in question. By contrast, short-term rates are either set directly or very heavily influenced by the authorities.    When the short-term rate is unusually far away from the long-term rate one might expect things to be happening to the economy, whether by accident or design.

Back in the day, when we were trying to get inflation down in New Zealand (late 80s, early 90s), the slope of the yield curve was for several years, off and on, a fairly important indicator for the Reserve Bank.  At times we even set internal indicative ranges for the slope of the yield curve (at the time, the relationship between 90 day commercial bill yields and five year government bond yields), and for a while even rashly set a line in the sand of not allowing the short-term rate to fall below the long-term rate.      We used this indicator because neither we nor anyone else had any idea what a neutral rate (nominal or real) would prove to be for New Zealand, newly liberalised and then post-crash, money supply and credit indicators didn’t seem to have much content, and we didn’t want to take a view on the level of the exchange rate either.  But whatever the longer-term interest rate was, if we ensured that short-term rates stayed well above that long-term rate, we seemed likely to be heading in the right direction –  exerting downward pressure on inflation and, over time, lowering future short-term rates as well.

But what about the New Zealand yield curve slope now?     Here is the closest New Zealand approximation to the US chart above, using 90 day bank bill yields and the 10 year (nominal) government bond yield.  I’ve shown it the other way around – 90 days less 10 years –  because that is the way we did it here (partly because of the long period, until 2008/09, when short-term interest rates were normally higher than long-term ones, rather different to the US situation).

nz yield curve 1

I can’t easily mark NZ recessions on the chart, but there were recessions beginning in 1987, 1991, 1998, and 2009, and each of them was preceded by this measure of the yield curve slope being positive,  But, for example, the slope was positive for four years in the 00s before there was a recession.    Against this backdrop, there isn’t really much to say about where we are right now (just slightly positive).   And take out whatever credit risk margin there is a bank bill yield (20 basis points perhaps?) and the slope of the curve would be dead flat.

But what about a couple of other possibilities.  Unlike the 90 day bill rate, term deposit rates  and bank lending rates directly affect economic agents in the wider economy, and as I’ve shown previously the relationship between the 90 day bill rate and term deposit (and floating mortgage) rates has changed a lot since 2008/09. margins

In this chart (constrained by data availability to start in 1987), I’ve taken the six month term deposit rate (from the RB website) and subtracted the 10 year government bond yield).

nz yield curve 2.png

That starts looking a bit more interesting.  The level of this variable –  even after the recent Reserve Bank OCR cuts –  is close to a level which has always been followed by a recession.   (It is a small sample of course; even smaller than in the original US chart).

What about the relationship between the floating residential first mortgage interest rate and the 10 year bond rate?  Here is the chart.

nz yield curve 3

The only times this indicator has been higher than the current level –  even after the recent OCR cuts are factored in, as they are in the last observation on the chart – have been followed by pretty unwelcome economic events (the 1991 recession wasn’t strongly foreshadowed by either this indicator or the previous one).

It is a small sample, of course, and there are no foolproof advance indicators.   But if I were in the Reserve Bank’s shoes right now, I would take these charts as yet further warning indicators.

On which count, it is perhaps worth keeping a chart like this in mind.

NZ yield curve 4

We’ve had 75 basis points of OCR cuts this year but only about 45 basis points of cuts in the indicative term deposit rate (latest observations from interest.co.nz).  It is not as if these retail interest rates are at some irreducible floor –  retail deposit rates in countries with much lower policy rates are also much lower than those now in New Zealand.  It is a reminder that, against a backdrop of a very sharp fall in New Zealand long-term interest rates (real and nominal) –  even after the recent rebound the current 10 year rate is still more than 100 basis points lower than it was in December –  monetary policy adjustments have been lagging behind.   Long-term risk-free rates have fallen, say, 110 basis points (almost all real), and short-term rates facing actual firms and households are down perhaps 40-60 points (floating mortgage rates nearer 60).

The Reserve Bank cannot (especially after a decade of persistent forecast errors) have any great confidence in any particular view of neutral interest rates for New Zealand.  With inflation still persistently below target and (as the Governor and Assistant Governor have recently highlighted) falling survey measures of inflation expectations, there isn’t a compelling case for the Bank to have lagged so far behind the market, allowing short-term rates to rise further relative to long-term rates.   The Governor has appeared to suggest that the Bank will only seriously look again at further OCR cuts at the next Monetary Policy Statement in November.  I reckon there is a much stronger case than is perhaps generally recognised for a cut at the next OCR review next week.

 

 

Hush, don’t be so explicit

I had a phone call yesterday from someone I respect suggesting that I was going a bit lightly on Simon Bridges over China.  After my post last week, just prior to the Bridges trip to the PRC, I should generally have been immunised against that charge.  But what my caller had in mind was a few tweets where I had suggested that bad –  even despicable –  as Bridges was, especially this week in his interview with the Communist Party-controlled CGTN, actually there was little or no functional difference between Bridges and Labour (in particular) when it came to the PRC.   Tweets like this were what my caller seemed to have in mind

Anyone who hasn’t watched the interview really should do so.   From a PRC/CCP perspective, it must have seemed almost too good to be true.  It came across like one of those staged interviews normal political parties sometimes do with a sympathetic “interviewer” designed to put leader and party in a good light, except that this was the leader of New Zealand’s National Party –  a party that purports to espouse values (freedom, democracy, limited government etc) that mostly look quite good on paper, that once had a clear moral sense of the evils of Communism –  being interviewed by a CCP interviewer who feeds up soft questions (“hasn’t the Party done a wonderful job?”, “isn’t Xi Jinping a great leader?” sort of thing), and Bridges gives back pandering answers better (from the CCP perspective) than even she must have hoped (even recognising the typically obsequious and deferential – craven really – form of NZ political leaders on the PRC).

One could unpick it line by line:  for example, where he seemed even keener than the interviewer to celebrate even the first 30 years of the PRC (perhaps Jian Yang never told him about the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and all the other horrors), his treatment of the CCP as a normal political party, or (only noticed on a second viewing) the sickening way he invoked Winston Churchill –  who actually led the fight against tyranny, and called people to recognise it for what it was –  to pander to his hosts.  But I don’t think any serious observer disagrees that it was extraordinarily bad –  the only competition is how best to describe the spectacle.

The rest of the visit doesn’t seem to have been much better.  He looks to have been desperate to impress his hosts (but they probably already had him marked as a “useful idiot”, after his pandering to Yikun Zhang, protection and promotion of Jian Yang, and his part in signing the previous government up to the vision of a “fusion of civilisations”) and perhaps to look as if he was taken seriously abroad.  How else to explain him agreeing to meet, in the Great Hall of the People, with Guo Shengkun, the member of the Politburo responsible for all PRC law enforcement activities (that includes Xinjiang), former Minister of Public Security?

He must have been briefed on Guo Shengkun’s background – even if Jian Yang thought not to mention it, MFAT surely would have.  But if it bothered anyone around him at all, clearly not enough to say no.   Perhaps the choice of Politburo member was carefully planned by the PRC to see whether Bridges had any limits, any scruples, at all.  They seem to have got their answer.

That all should be good for a few more donations, large and small, to National –  which has shown no interest in higher standards or tighter laws in this area.  Perhaps another dinner at Yikun Zhang’s house?

Bridges has, rightly, been on the receiving end of a fair amount of flak over the interview in particular.  Grant Robertson has been reported as suggesting that in the interview comes across as more devoted than most paid-up members of the Communist Party itself.  Perhaps he too has spent many hours studying Xi Jinping Thought to get his lines right, or perhaps that was just Jian Yang?   It isn’t quite clear how much he is sold-out, value-free vs being simply out of his depth, and not fully realising the significance of what he was doing, who he was talking to, and what he was saying.

And from some academics there was quite a lot of surprised pearl-clutching too.  The director of Victoria University’s Centre of Strategic Studies, David Capie, gasped that it was

Alarming to have such a big gap between govt & opposition views/language concerning such a critical relationship.

And Jason Young –  director of the taxpayer-funded Contemporary China Research Centre – was among those critical of Bridges for his talking up the CCP when the New Zealand practice has typically been to talk about the state (PRC) –  as if the Party didn’t control the state, which works to Party supremacy ends.   Another local academic, never himself otherwise on the record as critical of the regime was moved to observe that “Bridges’ comments re Xi’s China are bonkers”.

(The China Council –  funded by the taxpayer, with eminent former senior Nats (and Jian Yang) on their councils –  ever pretty obsequious themselves, but ever so smoothly, has been uncharacteristically silent.)

I don’t buy it.    And you’ll note that –  search as you like –  none of these academics has been critical of National for its general policy stance towards the PRC, none has criticised Bridges for not speaking up on Xinjiang, on Hong Kong, on the increasingly repression of religion (doesn’t Bridges claim to have a Christian faith?), on the abduction of Canadians, on state-sponsored intellectual property theft, on the South China Sea.  Near-complete silence on the continued presence of Jian Yang –  15 years in Chinese military intelligence, misrepresenting his past on Beijing’s instructions –  in the caucus, and at the right hand of the leader on his PRC tributary mission.

No, what really seems to bother them is that Bridges seems to have let the side down by his over-enthusiastic gush.  Not the done thing old boy.   Created uncomfortable headlines.  Really Simon, don’t you know better by now?   They are embarrassed by this rather amateurish schoolboy effort to pander, rather than having any problem with the underlying policy approach.    That is as true of most of these academic commentators –  Anne-Marie Brady excepted of course –  as it is of the rest of political spectrum, as it is (apparently) of most of the media.  It should count as extraordinary that neither of our main daily newspapers –   Herald or Dominion-Post – has given the story any coverage at all, despite all the questions it should be raising about national security, foreign policy, the place of values in New Zealand policy, and fitness to govern of the leader of the main opposition political party.   Should.  But this is New Zealand.  And we don’t want the peasants getting uneasy about the way the establishment –  all of it –  panders to the PRC now do we.

If there are differences between National and Labour on the PRC they are so tiny, and largely opportunistic, as to be barely discernible to anyone else.  Perhaps National is “better” at tapping the money-tree, but that probably only makes those who run the Labour organisation a bit envious –  after all, there no sign of any leadership from the Prime Minister on the electoral donations issue, whether reforming the law or taking National to task over large donations from PRC/CCP affiliated donors, whether citizens or not.

Both sides like to run the ridiculous line about the great transformation managed in the PRC over the last 70 years –  never once pausing to recognise how poor the PRC economic performance is relative to east Asian peers (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore).  Both sides like to pander, suggesting that somehow New Zealand’s prosperity depends on the PRC –  whether cyclically (“saved by China in the GFC”) or structurally.     Both sides like to treat the PRC as a normal state.  Both sides happily hobnob with CCP figures –  only last year, the PM was meeting a senior CCP figure here and talking up better “party to party exchanges”).   National and Labour figures got together to honour Yikun Zhang, for what were really services to Beijing.     Neither side will say a word in public about any concerns about PRC gross human rights abuses –  a term which really diminishes the outrages perpetrated daily in Xinjiang –  or an expansionist unilateralist foreign policy.  Neither side seems to have a problem with NZ Police having friendship and exchange agreements with the Guangzhou police, or with an Assistant Commissioner of Police serving as a visiting professor at the Ministry of Public Security training university.

Is it even imaginable that either side would willingly meet Joshua Wong – one of the leading faces of the Hong Kong protest movement –  as German Foreign Minister did earlier this week?   Will either side call out the excess dependence our universities have come to have on the politically-vulnerable PRC market (of course not –  both sides encourage it)?   Such is the party discipline that not even a single backbencher on either side will ever speak up on anything to do with the PRC.   Both sides are happy to have Chinese language teaching in our schools subsidised by the PRC, through Confucius Institutes which vet for political and religious soundness (toe the Party line or else).  Both sides turn up to PRC Embassy and consulate functions as honoured guests, and both sides apparently support the propaganda efforts of the China Council.   Watch and see if you put a tissue’s difference between them when in a couple of  weeks the CCP celebrates the 70th anniversary of taking power in China.   Tens of millions of dead Chinese –  and decades, right through to today, of extreme repression –  will be quietly ignored as the champagne glasses clink.

And, of course, was there a difference in the – embarrassed, please go away –  way both sides tried to ignore that attempts to physically intimidate Anne-Marie Brady?

Meanwhile Jian Yang remains an, apparently valued (recently promoted) member of National’s caucus.  It is two years tomorrow since the FT and Newsroom broke the story of Jian Yang’s past.  And nothing has happened.  The National Party defends and protects him, never even insists that he front the English language media (all National Party voters elected him, not just some minority of CCP-affiliates).  And the Labour Party leadership has never once expressed even a word of concern.  That makes them just as complicit in having this close-to-the-PRC-Embassy, CCP members, former PLA military intelligence official, who accepts he misrepresented his past on Beijing’s instructions, not just sitting in our Parliament, but advising and accompanying the Leader of the Opposition to the PRC.

But you won’t hear any concerns from Labour (or the Greens or –  these days – NZ First) about that.  Nor, as far as I can see, words from Messrs Capie, Young, or Noakes, the academics quoted earlier.    There has been quite a furore this week in Australia about the new Liberal backbencher, Gladys Liu, and her past ties to CCP-affiliated bodies, and reluctance to express any criticism of the regime.   Bad as her case might be, it seems mild by comparison with that of Jian Yang, where both National and Labour really really just want the issue to go away, and people to keep quiet.

In my first tweet on the Bridges interview, I noted that if he’d had a gun at his head, or the CCP were holding his wife and children hostage, he could hardly have given a more appalling interview.  It really was bad.  But all it really did was lift the lid on the way in which so much of the New Zealand political, business, and media establishment treat the PRC –  ever-deferential, and quite value-free (other, that is, than those “values” of deals, donations, and meetings in Beijing).  Bad as the interview and visit was, in a sense it did us a service, briefly highlighting just how sold-out the establishment (all sides) really are.  But with little media coverage and lots of rugby in the next few weeks, they probably needn’t worry: the Bridges embarrassment will soon be tidied away and forgotten.  And that will suit Labour –  and the business community –  quite as much as it will National.

 

Wellington seminars

I spent yesterday afternoon at a couple of policy-focused seminars in Wellington.

The first of them –  “Tax on Tuesdays: Time to Even it Up” – was hosted by Victoria University’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, in conjunction with (if I heard correctly) the PSA and something called the Tax Justice Network Aotearoa NZ.  So the orientation was fairly left-wing, and explicitly focused more on fairness than, say, efficiency or prosperity.  But there were some interesting speakers, even if they didn’t have much time each so couldn’t dot all the i’s, cross all the t’s etc.

The first was Andrea Black, former Treasury/IRD official, former independent expert adviser to the recent Tax Working Group, tax blogger (and occasional commenter here), who focused on taxation of capital income.  After repeating her support for a capital gains tax, her distinctive argument was for an increase in the company tax rate to match the maximum personal income tax rate.   The main arguments appeared to be that (a) the most assured way of being able to tax the incomes of rich people in New Zealand was to tax companies (since in closely-held companies much of profits are distributed by way of loans –  not taxable in the hands of recipients –  rather than as dividends), and (b) the old argument about cleanness, minimising avoidance etc in having the company tax rate, the trust rate, and the maximum personal tax rate aligned (there being plenty of evidence that people will do what they can to defer tax by being paid through companies etc where possible).

I wasn’t really persuaded.  With dividend imputation, the company tax rate in New Zealand bears much more heavily on foreign investors (none of whom needs to be here) than it does on domestic shareholders.  In a country with low rates of business investment and now relatively low rates of foreign investment, it seems cavalier to be calling for increases in company tax rates which the global trend is clearly downwards (at 33 per cent the company tax rate would be the second highest in the OECD).   In defence of her position, Andrea invoked some old IRD analysis that company tax cuts haven’t made much difference to investment –    IRD has a strong institutional bias towards a simple tax system and little real focus on productivity, economic performance or anything of the sort – while noting that “if you did care about foreign investors” –  there were various technical tweaks (I didn’t catch them, but perhaps thin capital rules?) that could be adjusted to compensate them at least in part.

As if to forestall a question, Andrea alluded to this chart I’ve used several times –  a version of which appeared in the TWG’s own background document last year.

corp tax 2017

Prima facie, it didn’t as though – by international standards – we were undertaxing business income.

Now, of course, there are some well-recognised caveats to this data.  First, it doesn’t take account of dividend imputation in New Zealand (and Australia, but not elsewhere), and the TWG suggested there were some issues around consistency of treatment of government-owned businesses.  On the other hand, in many countries lots of stocks are owned by long-term savings vehicles with much less onerous tax provisions than their peers in New Zealand would have, and our tax system (mercifully) has fewer deductions and “holes” in it.     In yesterday’s presentation Andrea suggested that in many other countries various classes of business income that would be incorporated –  and thus captured in the chart – here wouldn’t be treated the same way in other countries.

All that said, if anyone is seriously suggesting that the chart of OECD data is substantially misleading about the New Zealand position –  say that in truth we might be in the lower half of the chart on an apples-for-apples comparison, the onus is probably on them to demonstrate that more specifically.    The OECD data itself suggests we have taxed businesses quite heavily going back 50 years, to (for example) well before imputation was ever on the scene (chart in this post).  Perhaps it is just coincidence – and I’m certainly not suggesting it is the only factor –  that business investment as a share of GDP has been low by OECD standards throughout almost all that period.

The second speaker was inequality researcher Max Rashbrooke.  His focus was on taxing wealth.  He doesn’t like the idea of a land tax (partly because land is held more widely than most assets, partly because Maori land would have to be “omitted for justice”) or the risk-free rate of return deemed income method that has been proposed by various groups (including the McLeod tax report, and TOP) because he doesn’t believe it is right or politically feasible to include the family home.    His argument was for a wealth tax, levied at (say) 1 per cent per annum on net wealth, but applying only to those with net wealth in excess of (say) $1 million.  This was sold as something of a moneypot, with revenue estimates of $6 billion a year.

Based on what he told us yesterday, the ideas didn’t seem to have been advanced in much detail yet, including the question of how one might get annual valuations of unlisted companies.   I asked about what proportion of his estimated $6 billion of revenue would come from ordinary middle-aged and elderly Auckland homeowners (given his unease about taxing the family home), but he didn’t know.   Personally, I couldn’t help thinking that a better approach would be to fix the urban land market at source – kill off the regulatorily-induced artifical land values, and (a) the cause of justice and fairness more generally would be served, and (b) there would be nothing like $6 billion per annum of revenue on offer.

The third speaker was someone called Michael Fletcher, of IGPS, who was apparently an advisor to the Welfare Working Group.  He was mostly talking about the welfare system –  in lots of detail, but with a view of the place of the welfare system that was so different to my own that I’m not going to spend much time here on what he said.  There was the odd striking statistic, notably his suggestion that perhaps 100000 people may be entitled to the Accomodation Supplement but not getting it (and he highlighted how easy the Australian comparable entitlement is to access, if you are entitled to it, relative to New Zealand), but I was left unchanged in my view that so much could be done for the better, for those at the bottom, if only the urban land market were freed-up.  Rents, after all, should have dropped very substantially in real terms over the last decade –  in a functioning market that would be an expected corollary of steep falls in long-term real interest rates – and haven’t because central and local government rig the system against renters and new purchasers of dwellings.

For myself, on tax I remain tantalised by the idea of a progressive consumption tax. In the abstract, it gets around all the debates on capital gains taxes, realisations (or not), company taxes, gift or inheritance taxes or whatever, and has the appealing the feature of taxing people on what they consume not on what they produce.  Of course, no country runs such a system –  which does have formidable practical issues.   And if one wants to align company and personal rates – which has some appeal (although the Nordic model questions that), better to lower the personal income tax rates by 5 percentage points (max rate to 28 per cent) and add a Social Security Tax of 5 percentage points on labour income up to a certain threshold.  New Zealand and Australia are, as I understand it, the only OECD countries not to adopt some such model (we do it on a very small scale with ACC).

From Victoria University, it was up the street to The Treasury where Alan Bollard was billed as speaking on

“New Zealand as a Leaky Economy: Are We Responding to Changes in Globalisation?”

As Alan is a smart guy, has been one of the “great and the good” of the New Zealand establishment for decades –  chief executive of one body after another for more than 30 years – even as New Zealand’s economic performance has continued to languish, and has recently finished a stint as Executive Director of the APEC Secretariat, it should have been interesting and stimulating.  It wasn’t.

Here was the summary that drew me along

For the last few decades New Zealand’s general policy approach has been to pursue economic openness (with some protections), in order to get the benefit of international growth drivers. Some of the political and economic developments around globalisation today are challenging that traditional approach.

Traditionally we think of external economic balance as the current account. Dr Bollard’s approach would go much wider, exploring our patterns of merchandise trade flows, services trade, short term capital movements, outward direct investment, labour movements, economic migration, data movements, business mobility and other less tangible flows (e.g. intellectual property, human capital) across borders.

Much of the debate centres on our inflows. This seminar turns the spotlight on outflows. It questions whether we are leaking value internationally: losing talent, falling off the value chain, undervaluing services, losing businesses (including their ideas and their taxes) to overseas interests. Questions abound: do we really leak value, do we have any alternatives, and what might “sticky policies” look like?

But there just wasn’t very much there.

He talked under various headings.

On goods market trade, what he had to say seemed to boil down to the fact that distance really matters for New Zealand and that two-thirds of our exports are still commodities, noting the failure of the Fonterra value-added dream.    We draw on tangible and inflexible resources (natural resources) whereas places like Hong Kong or Singapore (or, one could add, major European or North American cities) don’t.

On services trade, there also wasn’t much there.  He noted that New Zealand had long been a net services importer, but beyond noting –  rather misleadingly – that tourism and export education had been doing well, there wasn’t much beyond noting various global trends and technologies.

On international capital markets, there also wasn’t much.  As he noted, we typically have current account deficits, have modest savings rates, and have a banking system mainly run by Australian banks.  The claim that markets internationally are “increasingly globalised” seemed odd, both against the backdrop of smaller global imbalances than were apparent last decade, and the rising tide of restrictions in various places on foreign investment (whether US restrictions on China, or New Zealand restrictions on purchases of houses or farm land –  both of which he noted).

Of the market in labour, there was (surprisingly) little or no mention of immigration policy, but quite a focus on the outward flow of New Zealanders (and the high skill levels of many New Zealanders).  His assertion is that “talent is increasingly mobile”, and yet across the board for New Zealand that also looks not really true –  it is harder for New Zealanders now to go to Australia than it was and, as a result, that net outflows of NZ citizens) are much smaller (share of population) than they were several decades ago, even as the productivity and income gaps have widened further.

In discussing the market for corporate control, Alan listed various facts and factoids, including the suggestion that one of the biggest assets now owned by foreign companies was “our data”, and the notion that New Zealand ideas leaked abroad (but then, as he had noted earlier, this is hardly new –  Glaxo having been founded in the 19th century New Zealand).

And then as he got to the end and turned to policy, he could only conclude that there were – in his view – ‘no easy answers’, including noting that we were constrained by various international agreements (he didn’t tell us what interventions he’d propose if we weren’t).  There was favourable mention of the student loans policy that bears more heavily on people if they leave than if they stay, repetition of an old (misleading) line that houses have become international financial assets, and really not much more.  And there was the old question of who do we make New Zealand policy for: New Zealand or New Zealanders, and who counts as New Zealanders in this context, but few or no attempts at answers.    The fact that New Zealanders would be crewing many of the America’s Cup yachts of other countries, and that some New Zealanders would be playing for other countries’ RWC teams was mentioned, but not in a way that left me any close to sensing that he was doing more than lamenting New Zealand’s continuing economic decline –  without, in the hallowed halls of Treasury, being so upfront as to mention it –  which sees able New Zealanders looking abroad for better returns to their talent (as able people from many middle income and poor countries do –  see African or Latin American players in European soccer leagues).

To his credit, Alan took a lot of questions.  In many cases, the questioners seemed to be attempting to get Alan to endorse their preferred line of argument or policy option.  Actually, that included his wife –  Jenny Morel –  who suggested that Alan was underplaying the success of our high-tech firms (citing the repeatedly spun and highly misleading TIN report), to which Alan returned to his theme that such companies can and do leave very quickly, and noting again the loss of able people (explicitly highlighting that the two Bollard children are now living and working abroad, apparently permanently).

A Treasury official asked Alan about the real exchange rate, noting that many conventional analyses (and, perhaps, unconventional ones like my own) stress the role of a persistently overvalued real exchange rate.  Alan was pretty dismissive of the issue, suggesting if there was an issue it was nothing more than cyclical.

Perhaps, but when the gap between productivity and income levels in New Zealand and the rest of advanced world has kept widening for decades, and yet the real exchange rate has been high and rising this century and the foreign trade shares (imports and exports) have been falling, it looks like an issue that might repay rather more attention.  In my experience, Alan always tended to treat the real exchange rate as a financial variable, whereas is generally better seen as a real phenomenon, the outcome of various domestic pressures and imbalances (the price of non-tradables –  driven by domestic forces –  relative to the global price of tradables).

Alan Bollard wasn’t purporting to offer some fully-developed story of New Zealand’s economic decline, so I won’t fault him for not doing so, but it ended up as a rather strange talk.  The subtext was of the failures –  and yet those declining trade shares were never mentioned, nor (for that matter) the productivity story –  and there was the mixed pride and regret of older parents whose children have joined, perhaps permanently, the diaspora.  It was as if he knew there were problems, perhaps even rather serious ones, but wasn’t able or willing to think hard, or talk openly, about causes and what aspects New Zealand authorities could so something about.  That’s a shame.