If NZ was like Switzerland…productivity growth might be even slower

Reading the Herald over lunch, I was interested to learn that the New Zealand Initiative is leading a study tour (of 40 chief executives and chairs) to Switzerland to see what we have to learn from them.  According to the Herald’s account,

At the heart of a one-week study tour organised by leading think tank the New Zealand Initiative is a quest to examine the role “localism” plays in the Swiss economic success story.

The online version of the story even had a graphic,


Many of those items seem quite attractive.   Nonetheless, when the story was framed around Switzerland’s economic success, I couldn’t help wondering if the Initiative’s members might not be heading to the wrong place.

Once upon a time, Switzerland had either the highest or second highest measured productivity (real GDP per hour worked) in the advanced world.  The Conference Board has estimates back to 1950 – when Switzerland was just behind Luxembourg.  But in this post, I’ll use OECD data, which goes back to 1970.

As recently as 1970, Switzerland still held that sort of rank (as it did for nominal GDP per hour worked –  in some ways a superior measure, but good timely estimates for the current situation aren’t available).    These are the OECD countries for which there is 1970 data.

switz 1970

We weren’t doing too badly either –  just slightly below the median for example, and in the middle of the big European countries (Spain, UK, France, Germany and Italy).

But here is the cumulative growth in this measure of labour productivity for the full period 1970 to 2015.

switz 70 to 15

Beaten even by New Zealand.  It is a pretty woeful Swiss productivity performance.    Even over the last 25 years when both countries have done a little better relatively (we beat six of the OECD countries), Switzerland still came in behind New Zealand.        Over the decades, they don’t even have the excuse of agricultural protectionism, or being remote in an age when personal connections have become more important.

And what about the present?  Here are the levels of real GDP per hour worked in 2015, for the now much larger OECD.

switz 2015

Switzerland is, of course, still a productive and prosperous economy.  But over the last 45 years, it has slipped a long way down the league tables.    As for us, of the countries on the first chart who had lower productivity than New Zealand in 1970, only Turkey, Portugal and Korea still do.    (I hadn’t really noticed previously that if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot, even Turkey will soon go past us if these numbers are to be believed.)

I’m sure there are many good things about Switzerland.  It is a much richer, and in many ways more successful, country than New Zealand.  But I’m not sure I’d be looking to them, or their governance models (fascinating as they are in many respects), for lessons on what New Zealand should do to lift its relative economic and productivity performance.

Labour on housing

There was nothing positive to be said about the previous Labour-led government’s approach to housing and house prices.  There is nothing positive to be said about the current National-led government’s approach.  The rhetoric while they were in Opposition had been encouraging.  The substance of reform has been almost non-existent, all the while cloaked in fairly brazen, even offensive, rhetoric from both Prime Ministers (Key and English) suggesting that it was all a mark of success, a quality problem, and so on, along with suggestions that the government’s approach was working.    By that standard, I hope I don’t live to see a failed housing policy.

There have been some hopes, in some circles, that the Labour Party, if they were to lead a new government after this year’s election, might be different.  Their housing spokesman seems pretty impressive, and seems to understand the issues.  In a no doubt mutually beneficial move, he and Oliver Hartwich, head of the business-funded New Zealand Initiative, even did a joint op-ed on freeing-up the market in urban land.   Places where landowners can use their land pretty freely tend not to have the sorts of grossly dysfunctional housing markets New Zealand (and Australia, and the UK, and much of the US east and west coasts) have, even if those places are big and fast-growing.

I’ve liked the talk, but have been a bit sceptical that it will come to much.  In part, I’m sceptical because no other country (or even large area) I’m aware of that once got into the morass of planning and land use laws has successfully cut through the mess and re-established a well-functioning housing and urban land market.  In such a hypothetical country, we wouldn’t need multiple ministers for different dimensions of housing policy.  I’m also sceptical because there is a great deal local government could do to free up urban land markets, but even though our big cities all have Labour-affiliated mayors, there has been no sign of such liberalisation.    The Deputy Mayor of Wellington for example leads the Wellington City Council ‘housing taskforce”.  Paul Eagle is about to step into a safe Labour seat.   His taskforce seems keen on the council building more houses, and tossing more out subsidies, but nothing is heard of simply freeing up the market in land.  Or even of looking for innovative ways to allow local communities to both protect existing interests and respond, over time, to changing opportunities.

I first wrote about this last October, when Phil Twyford had put out a substantial piece on Labour’s housing programme.   There was a five point plan.  Reform of the planning system appeared on the list, but briefly and well down the list.    As I noted then

It has the feel of a ritual incantation –  feeling the need to acknowledge the point –  rather than being any sort of centrepiece of a housing reform programme.

Yesterday, my doubts only intensified.  Labour’s leader, Andrew Little, devoted the bulk of his election year conference speech to housing, complete with the sorts of personal touches audiences like (although he didn’t mention the tasteful lavender out the front of his current house, which I walk past each day).  Media reports say the speech went down well with the faithful.

This time there was a four point plan.  It was a lot like Twyford’s plan from late last year, with one omission.   The continuing features were:

  • the state building more “affordable” houses,
  • restrictions on “overseas speculators” buying existing houses,
  • making “speculators who flip houses with five years pay tax on their profits,
  • “ring-fencing” losses on investment properties.

But in the entire speech –  and recall that most of it was devoted to housing –  there was not a single mention of freeing up the market in urban land, reforming the planning system etc.  Not even a hint.    I understand that giving landowners choice etc probably isn’t the sort of stuff that gets the Labour faithful to their feet with applause.   But to include not a single mention of the key distortion that has given us some of the most expensive (relative to income) house prices in the advanced world, doesn’t inspire much confidence.     Planning reform isn’t going to be easy.  Few big reforms are under MMP.  It probably isn’t something the Greens are keen on.  And if the putative Prime Minister isn’t on-board, hasn’t yet internalised (or even been willing to simply state it openly) that this is where the biggest problems lie, it is hard to believe that a new government would really be willing to spend much political capital in reforming and freeing up the system, no matter how capable, hardworking and insightful a portfolio minister might be.

Probably reforms of this sort don’t play well in focus groups (although surely there is some responsibility on political leaders to help shape the debate, and change what people respond positively to?)   On the other hand, presumably the data suggest that people react well to attacks on “speculators”, “loopholes”, “subsidies”, which appeared numerous time in Little’s speech.

The headlines around the speech were around the leader’s official confirmation that Labour will prohibit people from offsetting tax losses from investment properties against other non-property income.   This is, apparently, to “close a loophole” to stop “speculators” receiving “subsidies”.     In fact, it is nothing of the sort.

For better or worse, New Zealand has a comprehensive income tax system in which different types of factor income are treated much the same, and taxed at much the same rate.  There are various exceptions, and lots of devil in the detail (thus, for example, the establishment of the PIE regime a decade or so gave an advantage to funds in widely-held entities over individually-held assets).  It has long been pretty fundamental to that system that one tots up all the gains and losses over the course of the year, and then pays tax only on the overall net income.  It would be absurd, for example, to take a business with five operating divisions and tax them on the basis only of the lines of business that made profits, even though several of the other divisions may have made large losses.    Since time is money, it wouldn’t be much consolation to say “oh, don’t worry, you can offset those losses against future profits in those particular operating divisions”.

But that is just what Labour proposes to do.    There is no “subsidy”, there is no “loophole”.   There is simply a conventional comprehensive income tax system at work.  If you lose money on one activity, you can offset it against gains on other activities.

And, if you are concerned about favourable tax treatments then, within the comprehensive income tax model, the clear and unambiguous feature of the tax system that favours one group of potential house purchasers over another is the non-taxation of imputed rents on owner-occupied houses.    Relative to other potential purchasers, this feature provides a big advantage to unleveraged owner-occupiers (ie mostly those in late middle age and the elderly).   This isn’t some idle Reddellian claim.  You can see the calculations worked out carefully in a Reserve Bank discussion paper, The tax system and housing demand in New Zealand, from a few years ago, showing how the features of the New Zealand tax system affect what different types of potential purchasers will be willing to pay.

Within a comprehensive income tax system, I’m at a loss to understand the economic logic behind Labour’s proposed policy.  Presumably it will be fine to buy a farm (or shares in a farm) and offset losses on that investment against labour income?  Presumably it will still be okay to set up a small sideline business which makes losses for several years in the establishment phase, and to offset those losses against labour income?   But not for residential investment properties (or, one assumes, for shares in companies mainly devoted to holding such properties?)   Even though setting oneself up as the owner of an investment property, renting a house to tenants, is a small business.  In fact, it is a way that many people get into business, taking risks to get ahead.

Much of the discussion in the time since Little gave his speech has been on what sort of people will be affected –  whether it is the evil “speculators”, as opposed to “Mum and Dad”.  I’m not sure if there is much data available on that in New Zealand, but they are having a very similar debate in Australia, and I was interested to see a list from Australian Tax Office data published on the ABC website as to who had claimed rental losses in Australia, by occupational group.  People can make of it what they will.  The occupational groups most likely to claim rental losses in 2013/14 were anaesthetists (28.7 per cent of them).  But 22 per cent of Police did as well.

I’m opposed to ring-fencing, if we are going to have a comprehensive income tax system.  And, I’m doubly opposed to singling out housing for ring-fencing.   If there is an economic logic to ring-fencing, apply it more generally or leave it alone.  As it happens, we tried something similar before.  From 1982 to 1991, there were restrictions put on loss-offsetting against labour income for “specified activities” (at the time, the bugbear was people investing in things like kiwifruit orchards).  Even then, loss-offsetting was limited to $10000 per annum (rather than zero).

Are there problems with the current tax treatment?  Arguably so.  Some would claim that the absence of a full capital gains tax is such a distortion, allowing people to run operating losses in the expectation of future capital gains.     As it happens, Labour proposes to address that by, in effect, imposing a capital gains tax on any sales of investment properties within five years (presumably these are typically the “speculators”).  But even if they weren’t, the argument still fails.  In even a moderately efficient market, there are no rationally-expected real future capital gains on offer across the market as a whole.  If there were, people would bid up the prices further now to take advantage of (and thus eliminate) those gains.     There are windfalls –  gains and losses –  from large actual changes in capital values of assets, but it isn’t a systematic distortion in the system.     (In principle, I don’t have too much problem with a capital gains tax that (a) applies only to real (inflation-adjusted) gains, (b) applies on a valuation basis rather than a realisations basis, and (c) treats gains and losses symmetrically.  In practice, no such systems exist).

Where there is a systematic distortion in the system is around the treatment of inflation.  In an ideal system, there would be no systematically expected inflation.  In practice, we have an inflation target centred on 2 per cent annual inflation.  As a result, roughly speaking, nominal interest rates are around 2 percentage points higher than real interest rates, and real assets should be expected to increase in value by around 2 per cent per annum, even if there is no change in their real value.      The two percentage point component of interest rates that is just inflation compensation isn’t real income (no one is better off as a result of receiving it; no one’s purchasing power is improved).  And yet it is taxed as real income.  And for those borrowers who can deduct expenses, interest is fully deductible, even though the inflation compensation component doesn’t reduce the borrower’s real income.   That is a systematic advantage to such borrowers, and one for which there is not a shred of economic logic.

In my preferred approach, the inflation compensation component of interest income would not be taxed.  And the inflation compensation component of interest expenses would not be tax deductible for anyone.    As the Reserve Bank discussion paper I linked to earlier showed, this change alone would make quite a substantial difference to how much highly-geared investment borrowers would be willing to pay.  And it would be a genuine improvement in the comprehensive income tax system as well, without singling out on class of purchasers of one class of asset.

But it is worth bearing in mind, that none of these issues can explain anything about house price inflation behaviour in the last 10 or 15 years.  Over that period:

  • the loss-offsetting rules have been much the same,
  • the introduction of the PIE system disadvantaged individual holders of investment properties relative to, say, holders of financial assets in PIE vehicles,
  • in 2005, the tax depreciation rules were tightened,
  • from 2010, depreciation on properties was no longer tax deductible,
  • the inflation target was raised in 2002, but for the last eight or nine years, inflation expectations have been trending down again,
  • maximum personal income tax rates were also cut in 2010 (reducing the value of deductibility and loss-offsetting).

Any of these “distortions” should be capitalised into the price pretty quickly once they are announced and understood,  The only new measures in the last decade or so have reduced the relative attractiveness of property investment  (and that is before even mentioning LVR controls).  It typically takes shocks to displace markets.  In principle, the advent of non-resident foreign purchasers could have been an example (in the presence of supply constraints), but we don’t have good data.  So could unexpected population growth.

We should probably also be sceptical as to how much difference ring-fencing, as Labour propose, might make.  When I was at the Reserve Bank we came and went in our views on tax issues around housing.  But the one consistent observation over the years was to point out that many different countries had quite different regimes for the tax treatment of housing.  Some allowed loss-offsetting, some didn’t.  Some had capital gains taxes, some didn’t (and all those who did had various different rules).  Some had differential income tax rates for capital and labour income. Some even made a stab at taxing imputed rentals.  But it wasn’t obvious that the differences in tax treatments explained much about the levels of house prices, or about cycles in them.    And in a well-functioning land market, land –  the asset value that is, in principle, affected by tax system changes –  is only a fairly small component of a typical house+land price.

What tax rules do is affect who owns which assets.  Thus, for decades our tax system has tended to treat all owners of investment properties pretty equally.   Loss-offsetting was part of that.   But so was the fact that we didn’t give favourable tax treatment (generally) to insurance companies and superannuation funds.  In many countries, assets held in those sorts of vehicles are more lightly taxed.  Not surprisingly, managers of those vehicles can afford to pay more for the assets, and a larger share of the assets end up in such vehicles.

Ring-fencing rules can be expected to have similar effects.     If “Mum and Dad” with one investment property can’t offset a bad year’s losses against other income, but have to carry it forward and wait for a good income year from property, while a superannuation fund with lots of investment properties can (either because it is less leveraged or because losses on some properties can be offset against profits on others) more properties will be held in such vehicles.  It isn’t clear what the public policy interest is in such an outcome?  More generally, the change will disadvantage people starting out in the rental services businesses relative to those who are better-established and have larger equity.

In the end, so-called “speculative” opportunities, on any sort of widespread scale, arise mostly because governments got themselves into the land market, and by regulatory interventions, disabled the market from working smoothly to increase supply in response to increases in demand, or changes in tastes.   Wouldn’t it be better, more in the interests of middle New Zealand (and economic efficiency) to address the problem at source –  fix the regulatory failures –  rather than falling back on rhetoric about speculators and subsidies, which at best in tackling symptoms, not grappling with causes?

Fix up the planning system and all this will be yesterday’s issue.  Fix up the inflation distortion and you’ll also have a better tax system.  But if the planning system isn’t fixed then, whatever other short-term stuff Labour does (including immigration changes) will only provide temporary relief, and in a few years time we’ll be back with the same old housing affordability problems.  What a lost opportunity that would have been.

PS.  I see that Labour is invoking the Reserve Bank in support of ring-fencing.  Perhaps the current Governor does favour such a change –  although we’ve not seen any economic analysis in support of it from them –  but if so, it is an example of a proposal which the Bank was against before it was for.    In 2005, at the request of the then Minister of Finance, a group of senior Reserve Bank and Treasury staff was asked to review policy options for dealing with house prices.  I was part of that group (as was Adrian Orr, and incoming acting Governor Grant Spencer, and the current Chief Economist at The Treasury).  There is a nice treatment of the ring-fencing issues on pages 19 to 22 of our report.