New Zealand Initiative on immigration: Part 4 Fiscal implications

The next couple of chapters of the New Zealand Initiative’s immigration advocacy report cover material closer to the core expertise of the Initiative and its staff –  economics.  Chapter 3 is headed “Population Pressures” and looks at the impact of New Zealand immigration on three areas:

  • government finances more broadly,
  • house prices, and
  • the impact of an ageing population (ie improving life expectancy).

I want to focus today on the first two, but first some brief remarks about the ageing population issue.

The New Zealand Initiative tend to mischaracterise this issue.  There are some specific fiscal pressures that arise from changing birth rates through time.  Low birth rates in the 1930s, for example, gave us a considerable fiscal dividend for quite a while in the 1990s and 2000s –  there just weren’t that many people becoming eligible for NZS.  On the other hand, high birth rates from after World War Two to the early 1960s mean that since around 2011 there has been quite a big increase in the numbers claiming NZS.   But those effects tend to wash through over time.   The much bigger issue –  a cause for celebration mostly, even if it should prompt reassessment of some government spending choices –  is the strong trend increase in life expectancy (I had some thoughts on this issue here).  The issue isn’t about baby-boomers, selfish or otherwise, but about the fact that we can expect to live much  longer than our grandparents did (at a rate of improvement of towards two years a decade), and we might reasonably expect our grandchildren to live much longer than we do.    There are technically simple appropriate policy responses to those trends –  notably, it simply doesn’t make sense now to be paying universal retirement benefits to people at 65, and the age of entitlement should probably be indexed to further trend improvements in life expectancy, as various other countries have started to do.      When they aren’t trying to defend immigration policy, the able people at the New Zealand Initiative know all this, and make these sorts of points themselves.  And they (rightly) celebrate things like the gains in life expectancy.    So what are they doing making over the top claims like this

policymakers need it [immigration] as the fiscal implications of baby boomer retirement become more acute

Not even a nice-to-have, but a need.

As it happens,  in their more reflective moments even they are more hesitant

Although replacing the exiting workforce with migrants has merit, the idea should be treated with caution. International competition for skilled workers will increase as
the world becomes more interconnected and the ageing problem worsens in developed countries. New Zealand, while an attractive destination in its own right, will struggle to compete with markets offering higher financial and lifestyle rewards.

If we take lots of migrants we should do so because they increase the productivity and living standards of existing New Zealanders, not because they might temporarily help us avoid taking overdue sensible decisions on what proportion of the human lifespan we pay universal benefits to people for.   We should bring in ever more people (since this isn’t just a one-off issue) from elsewhere simply to ease pressures to change internal policy that almost everyone now knows are overdue for change?  I think not.  And nor, generally, would the Initiative.  They are usually much better than that.

What of government finances more generally?

Here the Initiative is very confident.   In the section headed “Fiscal Discipline”, while acknowledging that in other countries immigration does seem to lead to net fiscal pressures, in writing about New Zealand they begin

Migrants tend to have a positive impact on the fiscal side of the government ledger.

They base this claim on MBIE-funded work carried out by BERL.  In that exercise, BERL take some aspects of government review and spending,  and allocate them –  quite carefully –  across New Zealand-born and foreign born residents of New Zealand.  On this snapshot basis, and on these components of government finances, they estimate that in 2013 the average foreign-born person contributed $2653 to government finances in 2013, and the average New Zealand born person contributed $172 to government finances.  Overall, of course, in 2013 the New Zealand government was running quite a substantial fiscal deficit.

It is quite surprising that an economics-based think tank like the Initiative simply accepts and presents these results at face value.    The BERL report –  one of a series done over the last 15 years –  has its own value (comparable data through time).  But it isn’t state-of-the-art in estimating fiscal impacts of immigration (as the authors note, they weren’t paid for a literature review, but simply to slot new numbers into the existing methodology).  It doesn’t even cover quite a few major areas of government revenue and spending.  And in a technical appendix to the report (obtained from BERL –  it doesn’t appear to be online), the authors explicitly note that

In addition, the estimates do not allow for life-cycle impacts of migrant characteristics. That is, the calculations are of a ‘snap-shot’ single year. Issues such as migrants’ varying contributions and expenditure claims over their lifetime are not captured. Dynamic micro simulation might be used to establish the lifetime contribution of a particular type of migrant, but such a technique is beyond the scope of this project.

Bring in a whole bunch of 25 year olds, and of course they won’t involve much government health, welfare or education spending.  But over time, they’ll have children, and age.  Bring in 50 year olds, and they’ll (soon) be eligible for health and NZS spending, but won’t typically have paid that much New Zealand tax over their lifetimes

I’m not criticising the New Zealand Initiative for not producing state-of-the-art estimates themselves (that is a very substantial project) but for not at least acknowledging some of the limitations of the estimates they choose to rely on.

I’ve commented previously on the BERL estimates, when Nigel Latta made great play of them in his TV documentary last year on immigration.  Here are some of the points I made then.

But even in what it does look at, there are some quite severe limitations:

  • recall that the report estimates that both NZ born and immigrants made a net positive fiscal contribution to the government’s accounts.  Perhaps, but recall that in 2013 (the year studied) the government was still running quite a large fiscal deficit.  In other words, even if the study is roughly accurately capturing the relative contributions of immigrants and the native-born, it isn’t remotely accurately capturing the absolute contribution.
  • The BERL exercise does not appear to recognize at all that much of the demand for increased government capital spending now arises from the immigration programme itself (as it notes, between 2001 and 2013, the New Zealand born population aged 25 to 64 actually fell slightly while the foreign born population of that age increased by 222000 people).  Over those 12 years, 80 per cent of the total population growth has been among the foreign-born.   Assign much of the (above-depreciation) government capex to the immigration programme and suddenly even the fiscal numbers will look quite different.
  • These are snapshot effects rather than inter-generational ones.  It is hardly surprising that an immigration programme that brings in relatively young people involves less government operating spending (per capita) than for natives –  people that age are typically young and fit –  but if we want to think about even the fiscal impact of the immigration programme as a whole it would be important to look at the impact not just of the immigrants in the couple of decades post-arrival, but (for example) at the impact as those people age, and the impact of their own children (many of whom will be New Zealand citizens, but still a consequence of the immigration programme).
  • perhaps most importantly, any sort of exercise like this is only meaningful if it deals with very small changes (when one can keep the rest of the economy held constant).  By contrast, the potential for a large scale immigration programme to affect real interest rates, the real exchange rate, and the underlying structure of the economy, means these fiscal exercises offer no insight at all on the overall impact of immigration even on the fiscal accounts, let alone the wider economy.

In addition, I think there are at least two other points worth making.

First, company tax revenue (and, I think, trust income) isn’t included in the calculations at all.  On the sort of snapshot basis used here, this is likely to skew the results against the native-born, because it is likely that the capital stock is disproportionately owned by natives rather than immigrants.  (This is, in a sense, simply the flipside to the fact that the average migrant is younger than the average native).  Perhaps as importantly, there is a reasonable argument that revenue that results from New Zealand’s natural resources should be assigned to natives, rather than (implicitly spread across both natives and migrants).  Those revenues  –  from farming or fishing or gas extraction etc –  would have arisen regardless of whether we had any material level of immigration in the last few decades, and are unlikely to have been enhanced by the much-increased population (indeed, if my concerns about the real exchange rate are correct, they may have been reduced).

And second, it is important to remember that BERL is comparing the NZ born and foreign born populations in total.  Although they do undertake some decompositions, it isn’t really an attempt at a marginal analysis –  looking at (ideally) the lifetime impact of the next 1 per cent of the population that comes in as migrants.  The foreign-born of New Zealand today includes old people who came in the 1950s, the small numbers who came in the 1980s, as well as the huge numbers who have come in the last couple of decades.  Research evidence –  summarised in Julie Fry’s 2014 Treasury working paper – shows that, for example, migrants for the Pacific and Asia take much longer than, say, migrants from the UK to reach native-born levels of income (and presumably tax contribution) for any given set of qualifications etc.  Moreover, even with the pool of migrants we take each year, there is wide range of skills and capabilities –  some will end up making a big positive (economic and) fiscal contribution, and others –  especially, say, the parent approvals –  will be a substantial fiscal drain.   Since the policy argument now isn’t about the stock of people already here, but about who, and how many, we should let in going forward, a more appropriate analysis –  for current policy purposes – would focus on trying to better understand what level of immigration, of what sort of people, would maximise any fiscal gains, or minimise any fiscal costs.  The BERL report doesn’t attempt that sort of thing, and the New Zealand Initiative don’t even note the relevance of the perspective.

For all these specific points, I’ve never made much of the fiscal issues around immigration in New Zealand.  The comment I made a few months ago still reflects my position.

I’ve never made much of the fiscal issues around immigration.  By international standards our residence programme , if large, isn’t bad  –  if it doesn’t attract many very skilled people, at least it does successfully focus on getting people quickly into the labour market.  But precisely because in the end we are largely bringing lots of people quite like us –  who can readily get jobs –  it is very unlikely that in the long-run there will be much net difference in the fiscal effects between the contributions of those whose ancestors have been here for generations and more recent arrivals.

With an immigration programme like ours, the fiscal impact probably isn’t much of an argument one way or the other.  Although if there are fiscal gains on offer, we could probably maximise them with more demanding entry criteria than those we currently use.

On reflection, this post has got long enough.  I’ll tackle the housing issues in a separate post later in the day.

5 thoughts on “New Zealand Initiative on immigration: Part 4 Fiscal implications

  1. Just on this:

    “When long-term interest rates fall, rental yields should be expected to fall. Absent population pressure, and in the presence of a well-functioning housing supply market, nominal yields should probably have fallen. ”

    Rental yields have fallen, by a huge amount.

    It seems to me that actual rents (not yields), are not influenced by interest rates, while yields (rent/price) are affected by interest rates, as rents are discounted at a rate that takes into account interest rate, to arrive at a price. (This is particularly true in a market with inelastic supply. In a market with elastic supply, interest rates should only affect the price to the extent that location or other amenity is capitalised at a lower discount rate).


    • Yes, thanks for that. I should have been clearer about the huge fall in rental yields – supply restrictions mean it has been thru higher denominators rather than lower numerators.


  2. Michael an outfit called Global Financial Data have compiled Seven Centuries of Real Estate Prices for the UK.

    On nominal prices they have this to say.
    “The only time when housing prices declined dramatically and hit their nadir was in the 1340s. And why was that? Because the Bubonic Plague decimated the population, reducing it by around one-third. Since there were fewer people, but no decrease in the stock of housing, prices and rents collapsed, falling more than at any time in history, even after 2008.”

    And for real prices they say this.
    “The real question, however, is whether housing prices increased more rapidly than inflation in general and by how much. The graph below adjusts British Housing Prices for inflation. The result is quite different. Again, housing prices tumbled as a result of the Bubonic Plague in the 1340s.

    After that, however, housing prices remained relatively stable, after adjusting for inflation. In 1940, housing prices were no greater than they had been six hundred years before when the Bubonic Plague had struck. Since then, the story has been different. Housing prices have risen much faster than inflation”

    Restrictive planning practices were introduced with the Town and Country Act of 1947.

    If this data can be trusted it seems to indicate that a significant reduction of population with a fixed quantity of housing supply results in significant reductions in house prices. So sure we can assume if population increases by a significant amount and housing supply is unresponsive then houses prices will rise?


  3. Thank you Michael for another interesting post. I completely agree with your view on company (and trust) income tax. I would also argue that the due to our misaligned tax scales; a proportion will actually be tax on personal services income rather than specifically tax on capital income. And yes again that should be mostly attributed to the existing population for the reasons you outline.


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