Uruguay: one more angle on our dire long-term economic performance

I’d never given much thought to Uruguay until some time around the turn of the century when Struan Little, then at Treasury and now Deputy Commissioner at IRD, came over to the Reserve Bank and gave us a presentation on his thoughts on comparisons between New Zealand’s economic performance and that of two other small and relatively remote countries, Uruguay and Iceland.  At the time, Iceland counted as a success story, and Uruguay not.     Since then, I’ve used Uruguay as a bit of a benchmark of what could happen to us if our continued relative decline wasn’t reversed. It was, after all, an agriculture-dependent colony of European settlement.

100 years ago, New Zealand had some of the very highest material living standards in the world.  Uruguay look reasonably good too, with GDP per capita estimated to have been above those in many countries in Western Europe.  The historical estimates move around a bit from year to year, but over the couple of decades from 1890 to World War One, the relationships between incomes in the United States, Uruguay, and New Zealand were reasonably stable.  Here are the averages, drawing on Angus Maddison’s collection of data:

uruguay nz 1

We were level-pegging with the United States, and Uruguay had incomes around 60 per cent of those of the United States and New Zealand.  Both Uruguay and New Zealand had around one million people back then.

Here is much the same chart for the last five year, this time using the estimates reported in the IMF WEO database.

uruguay nz 2

The Uruguay/New Zealand relationship hasn’t changed much, but both countries have fallen a long way relative to the US.  Relative to the United States, New Zealand is now about where Uruguay was prior to World War One.  Very few advanced or semi-advanced countries have done worse over that period: Argentina and Venezuela are the two I’m aware of.

Unfortunately, even this comparison still flatters us.   For every 100 hours the average Uruguayan worked over the last five years, the average New Zealander worked 116 hours (the US is in the middle).  Our relative productivity performance (GDP per hour worked) is rather worse than our GDP per capita performance.

We don’t have GDP per hour worked data going back to the decades prior to World War One.    In fact, in Uruguay’s case I could find that data only back to 1990.   Here are the Conference Board estimates.

uruguay nz 3

Despite all those reforms we did, we’ve continued to lose a little ground relative to the United States.  And Uruguay, wedged between two troubled countries (Brazil and Argentina) and having got into so much difficulty fifteen years ago that they needed an IMF support programme, has been improving significantly, against us most dramatically, but even relative to the United States.  They have a long way to go to get incomes or productivity anywhere near 60 per cent of those in the United States –  where they were 100 years ago – but GDP per hour worked is already up to almost 70 per cent of New Zealand.

uruguay nz 4

It isn’t just a labour productivity story either.   Here is total factor productivity growth since 1989, again from the Conference Board.   The improvement in Uruguay has been staggering, even allowing for the fact that the starting point had been a pretty badly distorted economy (and some decades of serious political turmoil).

From what one reads of Uruguay, there is still a long way to go –  consistent with the fact that it is still materially poorer than poorly-performing New Zealand.   But they’ve begun to catch-up, while we seem to just work longer hours (per capita) –  and add more people to the mix.  As late as 1970, New Zealand and Uruguay had much the same sized populations, but now their population is only around three quarters of ours.

Contrary to the wisdom of Treasury and MBIE –  accepted by the political elite –  all that infusion of new people doesn’t seem to have done us much good.

Of course, continuing the slow path of relative decline doesn’t prevent New Zealand being a pleasant place to live for many. The sun shines, the beaches and mountains call, and so on. But Montevideo’s beaches look attractive too.    What the continuing slow relative decline tends to mean is a continuing loss of our people –  our children, siblings, friends, grandchildren –  and for those who stay, the struggle to sustain good quality health systems, cancer drugs etc.

Perhaps our leaders might focus on these basic issues instead of pursuing seats on the Security Council, the Secretary-Generalship of the United Nations or whatever.  It isn’t just a National government failure after all.  Perhaps in the 1990s there was a reasonable “the cheque is in the mail” argument, but for the last 15 years –  under both National and Labour governments –  it has been increasingly apparent that economic policy just wasn’t working, and New Zealand was continuing its relative decline.  And nothing serious has been done to address that failure.   We are no better now –  relative to the leading countries – than Uruguay was 100 years ago.  What is stop us drifting further back, towards where Uruguay is today?