Immigration: numbers and options

On the off chance that anyone thinking about negotiations with New Zealand First might also be considering immigration policy options, I thought it might be time for a refresher on the numbers (as well as yet another dig at MBIE for not making accessible data readily available on a timely basis).  Since much of the accessible data MBIE do release is for June years, for this post I’ll mostly use data for the year to June 2017.

Recall that the headline writers focus on net permanent and long-term migration, calculated from the declared intentions of those (New Zealanders and foreigners) crossing the border.  If you are leaving and expect to be away for at least 12 months, or are a non-resident arriving and expect to be here for at least 12 months, you are in the PLT statistics.   Plans do change, but the new 12/16 data I wrote about a few weeks ago suggests that during the current cycle the PLT numbers have been capturing pretty well not just declared intentions but what actually happened.    In the year to June 2017, a net 72,305 people arrived as PLT migrants.   Just slightly more than that number of non-New Zealand citizens arrived, and 1284 New Zealanders (net) left.

PLT sept 17

As people often stress, a lot of the variance in the net PLT series is typically accounted for by changes in the choices of New Zealanders (net outflows have fluctuated between around 0 and around 40000, and there have been quite big fluctuations –  hard to predict –  every few years).  The choices of New Zealanders are not a matter of immigration policy.

But policy has pretty full control over the number of non-citizens arriving (Australians are allowed in without advance specific approval, although the numbers typically aren’t large).   And sometimes you will see this chart, which uses PLT arrivals data (gross, not net) to show what sort of visa people were on when they crossed the border as PLT arrivals (the “not applicables” are New Zealand and Australian citizens).

PLT arrivals by visa

But this chart doesn’t tell us anything much about immigration policy.  In the year to June 2017, 16711 people arrived on residence visas.  But during that year, MBIE granted 47331 residence visas, the overwhelming proportion to people who were already here (and who typically will have entered first on a student or work visa).  Perhaps it is worth noting, for all the talk of the success of the export education sector, by far the biggest increase in arrivals in recent years (absolute and percentage) has been in people with various types of work visas: around 24000 in the year to June 2012, and around 45000 in the year to June 2017.

If we want to look at immigration itself, it is much better to turn to the administrative data on the numbers of people approved for various classes of visas.  Unfortunately, unless you like playing with spreadsheets with half a million lines, MBIE only produce data annually, for June years, and the data for the year to June 2017 hasn’t yet been released.   Having said that, it doesn’t look as though there will have been big changes when the data do finally emerge.

Here are the numbers for visas granted to new workers under various policies (ie excluding renewals etc).

Number of new workers by policy
2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
Study to work 9,319 9,131 6,259 9,610 16,097
Essential skills 6,197 6,247 7,885 7,709 8,334
Work to residence 1,653 1,558 1,426 1,483 1,717

and there has been a big increase in the numbers granted working holiday visas

2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
Working holidays 41,561 47,168 53,131 59,742 63,230

Fortunately, Education New Zealand don’t seem to mind the half million line spreadsheets, and produce a nice monthly product on student visas.   Here is the chart of outstanding valid student visas by class of institution for the last few years.


Numbers are growing, but in the last year or two there has been quite a switch from private training enterprises (which will have included some of the more questionable institutions/courses) towards universities in particular).

What of residence approvals?  I did download the huge spreadsheet for that subset of the data to get an overview of the 2016/17 numbers.  Here are residence approvals in the last few years.

Number of residence visas approved
2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16 2016/17
40,448 38,961 44,008 43,085 52,052 47331

Recall that (a) there is a “planning range” (in effect, a target) for the number of residence approvals granted. That range was 45000 to 50000 per annum, but was cut to 42500 to 47500 late last year.  Actual approvals fluctuate around the target, rather than being mechanically managed to meet it month by month or year by year.  The 2015/16 approvals were high, but the numbers have been cut somewhat in the most recent year.

Recall that most of those getting residence visas were already living here (on work, study, or related visas).

In terms of nationality, in 2015/16 these were the top source countries

China 9,360
India 8,498
United Kingdom 4,934
Philippines 4,614
South Africa 2,970
Fiji 2,230
Samoa 2,156
United States 1,288
South Korea 1,125

I didn’t calculate all the numbers for 2016/17, but the patterns looked pretty similar.

I hadn’t seen this data in the published MBIE summaries, but I was a little surprised to find that among the residence approvals 1937 were for people in a category of

Uncapped Family Sponsored Stream Dependant Child

These aren’t the children of principal applicants who are themselves getting residence visas (as those children are approved with the parents).   Around half of all these “dependent children” were Samoan, and of them 242 were aged 20-29, not typically what one thinks of when one hears of “dependent children”.   I’m not sure how or why such a policy exists, but when I get time I might have a dig around.

So that is the numbers.  Perhaps the key thing to keep in mind is that the residence approvals planning range –  the centrepiece of the immigration programme –  has been pretty stable for a long time (modest cut last year).  Much of the variability in the headline PLT numbers is New Zealanders, and most of the variability in the non-NZ net inflow relates to policy streams other than the residence approvals programme.

Of course, variability is only part of the picture.  The striking thing about the residence approvals programme is its sheer size: equivalent to almost 1 per cent of the population each year, and in per capita terms three times the size of the US “green card” issuance (under both recent administrations).   We have a very large number of legal temporary foreign workers here by international standards, but most of them will eventually go home.  What really marks us out is the size of the residence approvals programme –  bigger per capita than in almost any OECD country, and far bigger than most.   I’ve argued for cutting programme back to, say, 10000 to 15000 per annum (a similar size, per capita, to the US programme.)

As I’ve noted here previously, if one looks at the New Zealand First website there isn’t much specific on immigration policy.   Winston Peters has sometimes talked of lowering the annual inflow to something like 10000 to 15000, but quite what is meant by that hasn’t been clear.  Most naturally he may have wished to suggest a net PLT inflow of around those numbers.  If so, it would have to be treated as an average over time, since annual PLT flows are almost wholly unpredictable (given the variability in the net flow of New Zealanders).

Having said that, one could make some estimates of a trend net outflow of New Zealanders, likely to resume as the Australian labour market improves.   Assume that outflow is 20000 on average over the cycle (a bit less than in the past), and you might lower the residence approvals target to 30000 to 35000 per annum (the net of the two flows on average producing something like a 10000 to 15000 inflow per annum).  That doesn’t sound terribly radical, and frankly there looks to be plenty of room to (a) drop off the lower-skilled portion of the current approvals, while (b) removing the sort of absurd bureaucratic hassles really skilled people (eg the teachers profiled in the Herald the other day) can face.

One of the other, rather general, strands of New Zealand First’s immigration policy is

Ensure that there is effective labour market testing to ensure New Zealanders have first call on New Zealand jobs.

I’m sceptical of the practical means to do this, even if I’m somewhat sympathetic to the concerns that motivate it.  I don’t think bureaucrats should be trying to decide which job is really in excess demand, let alone try to reach Soviet-type judgements on which regions should be favoured, or whether wages for those particular skills should just be left to rise.  But in various recent presentations, I have included an option for reforming the work visas system (in addition to substantially tightening up on student work visas and post-study visas, for those with lower level qualifications)

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), and

b) Subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum or 20 per cent of the employee’s annual income (whichever is greater).   [To limit risks of exploitation, require the employer to prove that the employee has been paid at least $10000 above the mimimum wage, with no “fees”  allowed to be paid back to the employer or related entities.]

The key element is the second one.  If your firm really needs a highly-skilled person (surgeon, lawyer, CEO or whatever, earning say $200000 or more), and can’t find one on market in New Zealand, the annual fee is unlikely to be prohibitive given the key short-term such a person is like to be playing.   But, equally, there aren’t many of those sorts of people/roles, and many won’t want to stay here forever.  So I’d make it easy to recruit them, but with a strong emphasis (because the visa is non-renewable) on the need to identify a local permanent person.   At the bottom end of the labour market, if the business your firm is doing is really so valuable you can afford the $20000 annual fee on top of the annual salary, that might be a reasonable pointer to serious scarcity.  But it seems unlikely that we’d be granting many visas to lower-end chefs, or dairy workers, or aides in rest homes.  And that would, over time, be a good outcome for New Zealanders.


(And MBIE could you please please make the monthly data more easily available in an accessible format, as Statistics New Zealand and other agencies do.)



A problem awaiting the new government

Whichever party, or group of parties, gets to form the next government will face the same facts about our disappointing economic performance.  As I noted a few weeks ago, based on the recent PREFU projections, not even Treasury seemed to rate very highly the chances of meeting the National-led government’s export objective.

Here is the share of exports in GDP, showing actuals for the last decade or so, and Treasury’s projections for the next few years.

x to gdp

By the end of that forecast period, there will only be four more years until the goal of a much-increased export share of GDP was to be met.  On these numbers, exports as a share of GDP would by then be at their lowest since 1989, 32 years earlier.  So much for a more open globalising economy.

One of the indicators I like to use is a rather rough and ready decomposition of real GDP into its tradable and non-tradable components, first developed by an IMF staffer looking at New Zealand a decade or so ago.    It assigns the primary sector and the manufacturing sector components of real production GDP, and the exports of services component of expenditure GDP, to the tradables sector –  the bits where New Zealand firms are competing with the rest of the world.  The rest of GDP is classed as non-tradable.    It isn’t a precise delineation by any means: some local manufacturing isn’t really tradable (due to high weight and low value, and thus transport costs) and, for example, the electricity generated for Comalco is, in effect, tradable.   But, broadly speaking, it seems to capture something meaningful about the New Zealand economy.  In the early days of the National government, then Minister of Finance Bill English was quite keen on it.

All economies need firms in both tradables and non-tradables sectors.  So one sector isn’t inherently better or worse than the other.  But countries that are catching up with the world-leading economies tend to be ones in which the tradables sector (exports and import-competers) lead the way.  In such economies, firms are finding more and better, more lucrative, ways to tap the much larger global market.  Of course, we also gain when the non-tradables sector is becoming more productive –  both directly as consumers, and as a reduction in the input costs of tradables sector firms.    But there is a limit to how many cafe meals we can serve each other.  There isn’t really a technical limit on, say, how many smart ideas, translated into appealing products, that firms in a small country could sell to the rest of the big world.

As well as dividing real GDP into tradables and non-tradables components, I’ve also expressed both components in per capita terms.    Over long periods of time, most real economic series trend upwards, and actually it is something like per capita production or value-added that matters most in looking at gains in material well-being.   Here is the latest version of my chart, updated for last week’s GDP release.

t and nt components to jun 17

The series do bob around a bit.  The tradables sector, for example, had a very good June quarter on the back of a couple of tourism one-offs (the World Masters’ Games and the Lions tour) but then it had had a poor year last year.   But what I try to draw attention to is that (a) the peak in the tradables series was as long ago as 2004, and (b) real per capita tradables sector output is now no higher than it was at the end of 2000, almost 17 years ago.  Across the whole terms of two governments, one National-led and one Labour-led, there has been almost no growth at all in the real per capita GDP of the tradables sector. None.

Some economists really don’t like the chart.  So lets look instead at each of the components that make up the tradables sector measure.

tradables components 2

Services exports, in real per capita terms, did very well in the 1990s, growing quite strongly until around 2002.  But, overall, almost no growth since.   The mining sector briefly did very well around 2007/08 when a new oil well came on stream.   And, in per capita terms, the agriculture, forestry and fishing component of production GDP, and the manufacturing component, have gone almost nowhere over 25 years, again in real per capita terms.

What changed 15 years ago?  Well, one of the things that has changed a great deal is the real exchange rate.  Here is a chart of the Reserve Bank’s index, showing an average for the last 15 years (as well as one for the previous few years).

rer to july 17

It is unlikely –  all but inconceivable in fact –  that if we keep on doing what we’ve been doing for the last 15 years or more, in terms of economic policy settings, that we’ll see any sustained per capita growth in our tradables sectors.  It is that old line about a definition of insanity being doing the same stuff over again and expecting a different result.

Even to sustain those sectors at the sort of flat levels –  no growth at all – we’ve had over the last 15 years or more has involved the significant subsidies of (a) unpriced pollution externalities especially around water, (b) significant direct subsidies (to, most notably, the film industry) and (c) significant effective subsidies to the export education industry (by offering a bundled product where students can pay for an education –  in some cases an “education” –  and get preferred access to work and residence visa entitlements too –  that benefit being provided free to the providers by the New Zealand government).

I’d be very happy for a new government, of whatever stripe, to deal directly to any or all of those distortions.  But they, and their advisers, need to bear in mind that exchange rate chart.   Unless the real exchange rate falls quite materially, it is difficult to envisage much growth in other tradables industries to replace the shrinkage in the subsidised industries.  (It was exactly the same issues policy advisers faced when we started liberalising, and stripping away earlier subsidies, in 1984.)   Real exchange rates can’t be managed directly, but they can be materially influenced by removing the sorts of other policy distortions that put intense pressure on domestic resources, and drive up the prices of non-tradables relative to tradables, skewing the economy away from the tradables sector.

I’m not optimistic about prospects, but the good thing about pessimism is that one can, just occasionally, be pleasantly surprised.


Productivity and employment

With 30 seconds thought it is pretty obvious that if the least productive 10 per cent of our workforce simply dropped out and stayed home, then across the whole economy average GDP per hour worked would increase, all else equal.   All else equal, the productivity of any particular individual still employed wouldn’t change –  in practice it might well, as someone would still have to do the filing or the cleaning –  but the average would.

So far, so uncontroversial.  No one thinks it would be a sensible policy approach to lifting productivity to, say, bar such low productivity people from working.  Doing so would not only be inhumane, but it would make us, on average, poorer (output is still output, even if productivity of the marginal worker is below average).    In practice, of course, high minimum wages (relative to the market median), as in New Zealand, have exactly that effect –  pricing some low-productivity people (who couldn’t, at present, command a wage in the market at least equal to the statutory minimum.

But every so often in the last 20 years, as people have tried to grapple with New Zealand’s continuing poor average levels of GDP per hour worked, and the failure to achieve any convergence to the (now) richer members of the OECD, someone pops up with line “ah, but we are more effective than most in drawing in the low productivity members of our community, which will bias our measured average productivity (and productivity growth) downwards.

The latest example was in the Sunday Star-Times business section yesterday.

New Zealand’s track record on labour productivity may look worse than it is because a growing number of Kiwis are in work, the Productivity Commission says.

In fact, this wasn’t reporting any new Productivity Commission work.  Rather, one of the Productivity Commission’s senior staff had pointed the journalist in the direction of some interesting work done by able researchers at Motu a couple of years ago.  And, despite the implication readers (like me) may have taken from the headlines and the lead sentence (above), the research work related to a period 2000 to 2012, not to the period of nil productivity growth over the last five years.

It suggested annual productivity growth would have been about 70 per cent higher, averaging 0.24 per cent, between 2001 and 2012, instead of 0.14 per cent, were it not for a decline in skills associated with higher employment.   Motu estimated last year that the skill level of the average Kiwi worker fell by 1.8 per cent over the period as more people joined the workforce.

Again, despite the hyped lead-in (“70 per cent higher”) do note that the difference in these two (multi-factor) productivity growth rates cumulates over 11 years to a total difference of around 1.1 per cent.  Welcome, but not exactly game-changing.

Motu provided a nice non-technical summary  (page 3f) on what they’d actually done, using detailed data from the Longitudinal Business Database (LBD).

Productivity estimates are typically based on the quantity of labour used by firms to produce output. However, the characteristics of a firm’s workers also have an important influence on productivity, with different types of labour impacting differently on the technologies that firms adopt and their performance more generally. Because data on individual workers are linked to the data on firms in the LBD, it is possible to construct a measure of the quality of a firm’s labour force and measure the impact of this on productivity.

The measure of worker quality – which is derived from earnings data – reflects the bundle of skills, qualifications and experience of individual workers. As such, it picks up a broader range of worker attributes beyond qualifications.

Based on this measure, the average quality of the New Zealand work force declined slightly by 1.8% from 2001-2012…..

This somewhat surprising decline in the average quality of New Zealand workers reflects the net result of two opposing forces. First, average skills increased due to ageing (ie, greater experience) and rising qualifications. For example, the share of tertiary qualified workers grew from 15% to 25% while the share of workers with no qualifications fell from 19% to 14% between 2001 and 2013. At the same time, full-time equivalent employment increased strongly by around 15% (Figure 1). The large number of new workers who came into the labour market had, on average, lower skills than existing workers. This lead to a dilution in worker quality that more than offset the improvement in qualifications and experience.

They look like nice results.

But since many of the concerns around productivity growth in New Zealand relate to cross-country comparisons –  how have we done relative to the rest of the advanced world, and relative to common underyling global trends –  it might be worth looking at what has happened in other countries.    It would take a pretty big study to replicate the Motu project across, say, the OECD.   But we do have readily accessible data on employment to population ratios across the OECD, and we have that data for a longer period of time than just 2001 to 2012.

Our HLFS goes back to 1986.  Here is how New Zealand’s employment to population ratio has behaved since 1986.

employment to popn 25 Sep

Over the entire 30 year period, our employment to population ratio increased by 2.4 percentage points, which isn’t a lot.  It seems quite plausible that the effect Motu identified was present in the data as the employment to population ratio increases, from the trough in 1992 through to 2007.  But most of that effect will have been reversing the opposite effects resulting from the really sharp fall in the employment to population ratio (disproportionately low productivity workers, almost by construction) from 1986 to 1992.

And what about the international comparison?  Here is the gap between New Zealand’s employment to population rate and that in the median of the 22 OECD countries for which there is data for the whole period (almost all the “old” advanced OECD countries, and not the former Soviet bloc countries).

employment 2

In all but one year, our employment to population ratio has been above that of the median OECD country.    That doesn’t automatically mean we have been employing more low productivity people –  some systems make labour force participation of both parents of small children easier than others, and some systems penalise older people staying in workforce less than others –  but lets grant that some part of the difference may be that we manage to employ more of the less productive groups.   At the margin, that might explain a small part of the levels difference between our average productivity and that of these, mostly richer, OECD countries.

But two things to note:

  • the gap is smaller now than it was thirty years ago.  In other words, even if this “employing the less productive classes” story is some part of the levels explanation, it is almost certainly less of an explanation than it was 30 years ago.  And yet the real puzzle people have been grappling with is why, after all the reforms, we haven’t made any progress in closing the gaps over the last 30 years.   These compositioneffects don’t look as though they can help over the post-1984 period as a whole (useful as they might be for interpreting data for some individual sub-periods).
  • there has been no material change in the gap at all over the last decade, suggesting that this compositional story doesn’t offer any explanation for why from 2008 to 2015 we did no better than middling relative to other OECD countries (not closing the gaps), and since 2012 we’ve been among the very worst productivity performers, with no labour productivity growth at all.

As I’ve pointed out in several posts recently, average real GDP per hour worked in Germany, Netherlands and France is now around 60 per cent higher than that in New Zealand (even though historically all were poorer and less productive than New Zealand).  In 2016, employment to population ratios in New Zealand and Germany were identical (while those in Netherlands and France were lower).  But here is the chart showing New Zealand’s employment to population ratio less the average of the ratios of each of those three countries.

employment 3.png

Over the period for which observers have been struggling for an explanation of our poor productivity growth, our employment to population ratios have been falling relative to those in several of the leading, and most productive, European economies.

Compositional effects (around the skill levels of the labour force) just don’t look like a credible part of an explanation for why the level of productivity here is now so much below that in the leading OECD economies, or why no progress has been made in closing the gap, over the last 30 years or the last five.


Fossicking in election statistics

Well, that was a fascinating election outcome.

Listening to the coverage on Saturday night, I was interested in comments about how strong National’s performance was vying for a fourth term in government.  There didn’t seem to be many statistics behind the talk.

But it is worth bearing in mind that since 1935 –  when the domination of New Zealand politics by our  current two main parties really began – we’ve had 10 governments.  Two have lasted a single term, one two terms, four completed governments last three terms, and two governments lasted four terms. It seems to be an open question whether National will now be able to lead a fourth term government.  That means there really isn’t much data.  And, to some extent, MMP changes things –  minor parties are more important, and MMP governments have so far always involved multiple parties.

There has been talk that National’s (provisional) vote share this time (46.0 per cent) is higher than it was when they first took office in 2008 (44.93 per cent).   But ACT has never had anywhere to go but National, and never had any desire to go elsewhere anyway.  So at very least one should aggregate the National and ACT votes to look at the centre-right performance.

But I’d argue one should really go a bit beyond that.  The Conservative Party has come, came close in 2014 to entering Parliament, and then has largely gone again.  Not only did the Conservative Party campaign in 2014 as another potential support party for National, but realistically most of their voters in 2011 and 2014 are people (in many case conservative Christians) who would have otherwise, naturally or reluctantly, have voted for one of the other centre-right parties.

In this chart, I’ve shown three different ways of looking at how the centre-right vote has changed:

  • National + ACT party votes as a share of the total vote,
  • National+ ACT party votes as a share of the “used” vote (ie excluding the “wasted” party votes for parties that didn’t get into Parliament), and
  • National + ACT + Conservative party votes as a share of the total vote.

centre right 2

On each of those lines, the centre-right vote share has fallen quite a bit.  If anything, what the chart highlights is how well the centre-right did (and, I guess, how disastrously the left did) at the 2014 election.  In this election, the centre-right vote share –  the grey line –  has (on the provisional results) fallen by a full 5 percentage points.

And then I wondered how it had been in the 1960s.  The 1969 election was the last time a a party secured a fourth term.

national 60s

Now that looks more like a genuinely impressive performance – the governing party lifting its vote share in the election in which it gained a fourth term.   There had been industrial action at the time of the election which had hurt the Labour Party, but the previous three years had been a very tough time to govern.   Wool prices had collapsed (and with them the overall terms of trade), the New Zealand government had been forced into a devaluation in late 1967, and had borrowed from the IMF under a pretty stringent domestic austerity programme.  Things here had been tough enough that over the three calendar years 1967 to 1969 there was a small overall net migration outflow (the first such outflows since the end of World War Two). People can counter that the third party – Social Credit –  saw its vote share fall away, and both National and Labour gained. But in a sense that is the point: tough times like that are often when third parties, and main Opposition parties do well.  But National increased its vote share.

The other fourth term victory since 1935 was in 1946, when Labour secured a fourth term.  And here is how Labour’s vote share changed over its time in government.

Labour 1946

Again, going for a fourth term Labour managed to increase its vote share.   They’d seen off John A Lee’s rebel party in the 1943 election, and no doubt won back most of that vote, but again…that is the point.  Going for a fourth term after crises, war, and post-war controls and inflation, Labour increased it vote share (to 51.3 per cent).

I was also playing around with some other of the provisional results.  For all that the Greens have done pretty badly nationwide, it was striking how strongly they poll in the neighbourhoods I live and move in.    In (booths in) Island Bay itself 16 per cent, and in next door Berhampore 26 per cent (no wonder the new local Labour MP, and current Wellington deputy mayor, avoided answering questions about his approach to the cycleway).   In the whole Rongotai electorate  the Greens scored 17 per cent, and in next door Wellington Central (where James Shaw ran) 20.8 per cent.    Both those percentages are lower than in 2014 ( 26.2 in Rongotai and 29.5 in Wellington Central) but are still huge –  and conventional wisdom seems to be that the Green vote share will rise on special votes.  No wonder that, despite the fact that 70-80 per cent of submissions from residents favour scrapping the dreaded Island Bay cycleway (and certainly don’t want to spend millions more on it), the Wellington City Council seems set to pursue its green agenda anyway.

Finally, I was interested in whether there were any material differences in the party vote shares between advanced votes and those on the day.  I only looked at two electorates (again, Rongotai and Wellington Central) but this is what I found.



And Wellington Central

wgtn central

The differences aren’t huge, but they are there – at least in these two electorates, and in particular between the Greens and National shares. Given that advanced votes of those who enrolled at the same time as they voted still haven’t been counted, it would presumably offer some encouragement to the Greens.

Various views on Reserve Bank reform

Undecided to the end, earlier this afternoon I went out for a walk resolved that I wouldn’t come home until I’d voted.  With guests to cook dinner for, it was an effective constraint.

The other day, the Herald ran a Bloomberg column by journalist Tracy Withers headed “RBNZ could be in for a shake-up”.  Much of the column is familiar ground, and complements my own post the other day on the coming reform of the Reserve Bank –  whichever party forms the next government.    But there were a couple of interesting snippets, one of which wasn’t in the version the Herald used but is now in the updated column the link will take you to.

The first is an explicit comment from the Secretary to the Treasury, Gabs Makhlouf.  It seems quite unusual for a neutral public servant to be commenting in public –  in another country as it happens – on any matter of possible new policy just a few days out from an election.   Save it for the post-election briefing to the incoming Minister of Finance, would surely have been the stance of most senior public servants (all the more so when it is an issue on which at several parties have explicit public policies).

Anyway, what does Makhlouf think about Reserve Bank reform?

Gabriel Makhlouf, head of New Zealand’s Treasury Department, said he favors formalizing committee-based decision making at the central bank but doesn’t have a view on whether the committee should include external members.
“I can see why people may be concerned about that, and I can also see the value of having externals, and the different perspective they bring,” he said in an interview in Singapore Friday. “It’s something we are definitely going to study quite carefully before we decide what to recommend to the government.”

Treasury has long-favoured a move to formalise a committee-based decisionmaking structure.  They unsuccessfully attempted to interest the then Minister of Finance, Bill English, back in 2012 before Graeme Wheeler was appointed.  But it is surely a little surprising that, after all these years, and five months after Iain Rennie’s report on such issues was finalised, that Treasury still doesn’t have a view on a key aspect of possible reform.  Or are they simply waiting for the election results to come in, and will then tailor their advice to the proferences of their new masters?  I’d like to think not, but is there good reason to do so?

The other interesting snippet –  and maybe it wasn’t new but I hadn’t seen the specific quote previously –  was about the views of the current Minister of Finance.

If a National-led government is returned to power, Finance Minister Steven Joyce has said he’s open to formalizing the existing committee structure but doesn’t favor outside members.
“We should have a look at it,” Joyce said in a July interview. “I wouldn’t see radical change. I think the Reserve Bank model serves us very well.”

I’d certainly disagree with his final sentence, but of course he is welcome to his view. But it does tend to confirm the suggestion I made in the post earlier in the week that the Rennie report must have proposed quite far-reaching reforms.  After all, if Rennie had concluded that the current governance model “serves us very well” and that no change was required, or only some minor changes such as formalising the current Governing Committee, surely the Minister of Finance would have released the report by now.  Rennie may not command enormous respect beyond, say, the current occupants of the Beehive, but had a former State Services Commissioner and former Treasury deputy secretary for macroeconomics concluded that no material change was appropriate –  and certainly nothing like the changes (still modest themselves) that Labour and the Greens have campaigned on – it would have been modestly useful to the National Party, who have attempted to argue that Labour and the Greens simply don’t have what it takes to be economic managers.

Given that the Rennie report to Treasury was paid for with public money, was finished five months ago, and is official information, it is pretty inexcusable that it has not yet seen the light of day.

(I should note that neither the Joyce comments nor those of Makhlouf comments seem to address the Reserve Bank functions other than monetary policy.   In those regulatory areas, reform is even more vital, given the relative lack of constraints on the Governor’s personal freedom of action –  nothing like the Policy Targets Agreement exists.)

The other thing that prompted this post was the Herald’s editorial on Thursday, prompted by the Bloomberg column, and headed “Meddling with OCR carries risks”.  The text doesn’t appear to be online.

Over recent years, the Herald has been a useful mouthpiece for the Reserve Bank, and for outgoing Governor Graeme Wheeler in particular.  By not asking any awkward questions, they’ve been given preferential access to soft interviews and profiles, and have reliably backed up the Governor’s choices –  even when hindsight proves those choices weren’t always the best.

The editorial is somewhat overblown, and lacking in any serious supporting analysis. It asserts

This country has no need to copy any country’s conduct of monetary policy.  New Zealand pioneered inflation targeting by an independent central bank and it served this country will through the global financial crisis whatever mistakes were others may have made.   The divergent targets of the US Federal Reserve possibly contributed to the crisis.

We certainly pioneered formal inflation targeting, although independent central banks had been around in several other countries for decades –  on that count we followed an international lead.  Actually, I’d agree that inflation targeting served us reasonable well through the crisis, as it served well a bunch of other countries.  The US only formally adopted inflation targeting after the crisis was over.  Some would argue that different rules (nominal GDP, price level targeting, wage targeting) might have led to even better responses, although I’m a bit sceptical of that claim.  And any suggestion that the “divergent targets” of the Federal Reserve may have contributed to the crisis probably rests on claims by US economist John Taylor that interest rates were held too low –  below the Taylor rule prescription –  in the early 2000s.  There may be something to that specific point, but…..the Reserve Bank’s own published analysis shows that we did much the same thing during that period.  It is one thing to argue that New Zealand’s monetary policy isn’t much different than that in countries with differently expressed statutory goals (including the US and Australia), but another to argue that our monetary policy is somehow superior to that of those countries.   There is just no evidence for that latter proposition.

Then there is a weird paragraph about the Labour Party’s proposal to add an employment/unemployment dimension to the monetary policy goal.  There are certainly some questions Labour needs to answer if they do happen to form the next government, but to conclude (rhetorically), “could a Labour Party bear a target of 0-4 per cent unemployment”?  one can only suppose the answer must be “yes, but they probably wouldn’t suggest being that prescriptive”.   Only a few people –  some able ones among them –  think full employment in New Zealand at present is lower than 4 per cent.

In the end, the editorial writers seem to conclude that adding an unemployment dimension might not do much harm after all (although they can’t conceive of it doing any good), and what really worries them is the governance proposals.

Labour’s proposed changes to the way the Bank operates may be more damaging.  The Governor would no longer be solely answerable for the key interest rate, the official cash rate (OCR) set eight times a year [isn’t it seven now?].  Labour would give the decision to a committee with some appointees from outside the bank.  Already the Governor consults widely. But sole accountability can produce better decisions. A committee allows blame to be dispersed.

I was pretty gobsmacked. As I noted in my post the other day, I criticize Labour`s proposals as excessively timid, and leaving too much effective power in the Governor.  But quite what is the Herald concerned about?  That we might have a decision-making structure for monetary policy a little more like those in

  • Australia,
  • the United States,
  • the United Kingdom,
  • Norway,
  • Sweden,
  • the euro-area
  • Israel (which had a single decisionmaker until a few years ago, but changed)

They are correct that we don’t need to follow what other countries do.  But there is often wisdom in the choices those other countries make, and when the current Reserve Bank Act was written few countries had reformed their practices in recent decades.  We were (so we thought) pathbreakers, but no country has followed us along this particular path.

Or perhaps the Herald is concerned that monetary policy might be governed the way the rest of the country is?  For example,

  • the Cabinet (actually a committee of people who aren`t technical experts),
  • most companies, while final decision-making power typically rests with a Board,
  • the governance of most or all other Crown entities, from the Board of Trustees of the local primary school, to that of powerful regulatory agencies like the Financial Markets Authority, or
  • our higher courts –  both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court decide each case with a panel of judges.

But perhaps New Zealand monetary policy is uniquely suited to single (formal) decision-making? It is possible I suppose, but frankly it seems unlikely.

And do notice the careful wording “sole accountability can produce better decisions”.  In theory perhaps it can, if we have as Governor someone uniquely talented and gifted with insight and judgements far beyond those of mere mortals.  But this is a real world.  If such people existed, it would be very hard to identify them in advance –  or perhaps even persuade them to serve.   And if those responsible for appointing a Governor thought they`d found such a superstar, only for reality to turn out a bit differently, that would be a recipe for worse outcomes than under a (much more robust) formal committee-based decision-making model. It is why in most areas of life we choose governance models of that sort, rather than beating on supermen (or women).

And today, I`m not even getting into questions of the actual judgements or track record of accountability of Graeme Wheeler.     That can wait for next week.

The editorial concludes that

our system of monetary management is working well. Labour should hesitate to meddle with it.

Actually, not many people would really agree.  Even Steven Joyce says he is open to some change. It is a risky system, out of step with international practice and New Zealand practice in other areas of public life.  It has gone hand in hand with a progressive weakening in the quality of the institution, and if one does wants to talk about relatively uncontroversial specific failures, bear in mind that the Reserve Bank of New Zealand is the only central bank in the world to have launched two tightening cycles since the 2008/09 recession, only to have to quickly reverse both of them.  Those were choices made by individuals given too much power by Parliament. Whoever forms the next government, it is time for a change at the Reserve Bank.

A story of two Attorneys-General

On Wednesday evening I wrote about the despicable conduct of our Attorney-General, senior National Party Cabinet minister, and minister for various intelligence agencies, Chris Finlayson.

Asked why it was appropriate for a (past and –  experts say –  probably present) member of the Chinese Communist Party and former member of the Chinese intelligence services (both acknowledged facts, neither of which was disclosed to voters when he was elected) to be a member of Parliament in New Zealand, Finlayson simply refused to engage or answer, other than to suggest the journalists raising the issue –  journalists from serious outlets including the Financial Times – were simply attempting to destroy the man’s political career and in the process were engaged in singling out a whole class of people for “racial abuse”.

Asked about the claims in an important new paper by Professor Anne-Marie Brady (of Canterbury University and the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC) on the efforts of the People’s Republic of China (state and party) to influence politics in New Zealand and about the close ties of various past and present National Party members to interests of the People’s Republic of China, our Attorney-General’s only response was to simply make stuff up.  He asserted that Professor Brady didn’t like any foreigners, only to have an audience member –  a former student of the professor’s –  point out that not only was Brady fluent in Mandarin, but that her husband was Chinese.

That account has received a bit of coverage –  although not, of course, that there was any sign of the New Zealand media following the issue up with, say, Mr  Finlayson, or his boss the Prime Minister, let alone with the Leader of the Opposition.  It might have been awkward all round I guess.

My own readership numbers yesterday were more than twice the normal level.

Senior Wellington lawyer and former MP, Stephen Franks wrote about the story on his blog,   He’d predicted this sort of response only a week or so earlier on Radio New Zealand.

Rarely, if ever in politics, does one get explicit, irrefutable proof of a risky and unpopular hypothesis within a week of venturing it.

But Attorney General Hon Christopher Francis Finlayson provided such proof last night.

Last week, after discussing on Radio NZ the Newsroom suspicions that NZ MP Jian Yang may be a spy for mainland China I blogged my explanation that time did not permit with Jim Mora. I predicted that the Communist government could expect their spies who have penetrated New Zealand leading circles to be sheltered by our  elite’s PC terror of being accused of racism.

Last night at an election candidate’s meeting Finlayson showed just how the accusing is done. The other  candidates then showed how effective it is in cowing them.

Others tweeted the story.  There was Rodney Jones, for example: Beijing-based New Zealand economist, who had himself last week called for Jian Yang’s resignation.

Numerous commentators offshore focused on China have been drawing attention to, and stressing the importance of, Professor’s Brady’s paper –  the one New Zealand’s Attorney-General could deal with only be attempting to smear the author.

Professor Brady herself tweeted a link to Stephen Franks’ post.

And then flicking round the web over lunch, I stumbled on a new story on the Sydney Morning Herald website.  The authors begin thus

Attorney General George Brandis is planning a once-in-a-generation shake-up of the legal framework governing who can lawfully influence Australian politicians, amid fears of clandestine Chinese Communist Party influence over politics in this country.

Having seen Professor Brady’s tweet drawing attention to Finlayson’s despicable comments, Fairfax’s Asia-Pacific editor, John Garnaut,  a former lawyer who had previously spent many years in Beijing as the Fairfax China correspondent was moved to tweet thus:

What a disgrace. How have things in New Zealand been allowed to sink this low so quickly?

For those interested in reading in more depth about the sorts of issues Professor Brady has raised, I would recommend an article on the Brady paper by an independent researcher on China who blogs at a site called Jichang Lulu (and who has also tweeted a link to the Franks account).  It is a substantial post on the issues in the (quite long) Brady paper.  The author knows China, but comes fresh to New Zealand.   As the author notes

New Zealand provides an example of successful United Front domination of a diaspora community. As of this election, the top ethnic Chinese candidates are linked to CCP organisations and support PRC policies. In New Zealand, the Chinese community can only realistically aspire to political representation by its own members through individuals approved by Beijing. This situation, enabled by the leaders of the top parties, effectively allows the extraterritorial implementation of PRC policy.

(This incidentally makes a nonsense of Chris Finlayson’s absurd allegation that anyone raising these issues is “racist”.   The alleged PRC interference in New Zealand affairs directly affects the freedoms in New Zealand of the many Chinese-origin New Zealand citizens – whether recent migrants or descendants  of those who came generations ago – who abhor the Beijing regime and its repression. State-sponsored actors are the focus of the story, and the paper.)

As he notes of Jian Yang

In the same Chinese-language interview quoted above, Yang says he used to be a Communist Party member, but he isn’t one any more. That presumably means ‘not an active member’; as Brady notes, you don’t just ‘leave’ the CCP. You are considered a member unless expelled. Considering Yang’s excellent relations with Chinese state entities and the praise state media award him, it would be ridiculous to assume he was expelled. In all likelihood, Yang is in fact a CCP member. Chen Yonglin 陈用林, a former PRC diplomat who defected to Australia in 2005, cast further doubt on Yang’s claims he was a PLA ‘civilian officer’. Based on his knowledge of military institutions before reforms in the late aughts, Chen estimates Yang was in fact a ‘soldier’ and probably reached the rank of  captain.


Perhaps even more remarkably, despite what an external observer would see as devastating evidence compromising a candidate before a tight election, his direct political adversaries in the Labour party produced absolutely no criticism of Yang. I’m not terribly knowledgeable about NZ politics, so perhaps I’m being naive, but is it normal to have such a major security revelation on a senior political figure days before an election and hear nothing from his rivals?

Noting that these are issues for the Labour Party as well.

In theory, Yang Jian’s direct adversary should be Raymond Huo (Huo Jianqiang 霍建强), a Labour Party MP. Yang and Huo compete for the Chinese-community electorate; Yang has been found to have a background in military intelligence, which he had declined to disclose in the past; Huo, whatever his sympathies, isn’t tainted by work for a foreign military. Recent polls have put Huo’s party a few points short of unseating the Nationals, or even able to lead a coalition. How can he not use this?

The only explanation that makes sense (and that is consistent with reactions from other senior politicians) is that he wouldn’t like to speak up against United Front interests.

Again it, as well as the original paper, is an analysis well worth reading.

We seem to have come to an extraordinary, and shameful, pass.  The very fact of the silence of most of the local media (the Herald’s recent article a welcome exception) and the refusal to engage seriously of any of our senior political figures (and responses by people like Jenny Shipley and Don Brash that could be seen to trivialise the issue) is surely worth a story in itself.

Fairfax’s local media have been very quiet on both the Yang story and on the arguments and evidence at the heart of the Brady paper – in the very week of a general election. Perhaps John Garnaut – recall, he is Fairfax’s Asia-Pacfic editor – would consider writing such an article? Perhaps the local papers might even publish it?   As he notes, the episode is  “a case study on how important it is to repel foreign interference before it gets to the political centre”.

But the primary responsibility for dealing with these issues can’t rest with foreign journalists, but with our own leaders.    I’m not sure that leaves me with much (any) reason for optimism.

(Due to New Zealand’s somewhat absurd electoral laws, I will remove any comments put up between midnight tonight and 7pm tomorrow that have any sort of party political tinge, so please refrain from making them.)

Investment data again highlight fundamental weaknesses

After an early morning with some boisterous visiting nieces and nephews, there is a certain calm retreat in getting back to some of the details of yesterday’s national accounts release.

I’ve written previously here about the investment numbers.  The state of investment spending is a useful, if never foolproof, indicator of the state of the economy.  Not so much in a mechanical adding-up sense –  a quarter of weak investment probably translates into a weaker quarter for GDP – as in the questions the data can pose about just what is going on more broadly, and the viable opportunities that businesses are finding, and taking up (or not), in New Zealand.

My typical starting point is a chart like this, breaking out investment spending into residential, government, and “business”.  (I put “business” in quote marks because, as the OECD does, it is calculated residually –  subtracting the other two components from total fixed capital formation.)

I shares of GDP june 17

Using quarterly data means living with a bit of “noise”, but not that much, and doing so enables us to see if there are any material changes emerging at the very end of the series.

I don’t want to say much about general government investment spending.   In recent years, that share has been averaging a bit higher than what we saw in, say, the five years before the last recession.  Then again, government (central and local) has faced significant post-earthquakes repair and rebuild expenditure, and the population growth on average over recent years has been a bit faster than that in the previous decade.  If anything, one might have expected the government investment share would have needed to be a bit higher still, at least given the range of functions governments currently take on,

What of residential?   In nominal terms, residential investment spending (new builds and renovations etc) as a share of GDP is now just below the highest levels seen in the history of this series (and actually in the annual series which goes all the way back to the year to March 1972, thus capturing the peak of the building boom in the early 1970s).    Given the rapid rate of population growth –  a little higher, but lasting longer, than the growth rates 15 years ago –  one would expect to see a pretty high share of GDP being devoted to housebuilding and associated activities.   But you will notice that the residential line has fallen a bit in recent quarters, and consistent with that the volume of residential investment spending undertaken in the June quarter this year was about 1.4 per cent lower than such spending in the June quarter of last year.

popn growth apc

In this post, my main interest is in the business investment component (the orange line in the chart).  Strip out the modest quarter-to-quarter fluctuations up and down, and there has been no real change in the share of (nominal) GDP devoted to business investment for almost six years now.   Over the six years, business investment as a share of GDP has been materially lower (around 2 percentage points of GDP) than the average for the 15 years or so prior to the 2008/09 recession.    That is a big change.    And doubly so because of the sustained acceleration in the population growth rate in the last few years (and with it growth in the number of jobs).  Workers typically need capital equipment, even if it is nothing more than a laptop (and associated software) and a place to work.

Ratios of nominal investment spending to nominal GDP aren’t the only sensible way to look at things. In particular, in New Zealand a lot of capital equipment is imported (eg vehicles and most machinery, but not buildings themselves).  A high exchange rate –  such as we’ve had in recent years, but also had to a lesser extent in the last few years of the 2000s boom –  tends to lower the price (in NZD terms) of capital equipment.  The volume of business investment might still be growing quite rapidly, even if the nominal investment spending share of GDP is pretty weak  (of course, for tradables sector firms the high exchange rate is no gain –  capital equipment might be cheap, but the expected returns to any investment are also dampened).

So here is a chart of the annual percentage change in real business investment.

bus i 2

The volume of business investment has been growing, but at a quite modest rate.  In the last five years of the previous previous boom, the annual growth rate was around 10 per cent per annum.  Over the last five years, the annual growth rate in the volume of busines investment has averaged only about 4 per cent (which also happens to have been the growth rate for the last year).

These pictures don’t really surprise me.  They are what one would have expected once one knew of (a) the magnitude of the damage caused by the earthquakes (from day one  at the Reserve Bank we knew this was a large non-tradables shock, which would skew activity away from business investment, especially in the tradables sector, for several years), and (b) the scale of the population increase.   Those pressures have helped hold our real exchange rate up so much and for so long, and reinforced the persistent large margin between our real interest rates and those abroad.  In that sort of environment, total business investment (share of GDP) is less than it otherwise would be, and –  although it isn’t able to be illustrated here –  what business investment does occur will be skewed away from tradables sectors.   Not even very high terms of trade levels were enough to counter-act the downward pressure on business investment growth, and monetary policy held tighter than it needed to be didn’t help either.

Looking back at that first chart, the weak and almost dead-flat business investment line was reminiscent of the productivity chart I showed yesterday.  It is also consistent with the weak export performance I wrote about last week.  The three indicators are causally related: business operating in, or which might have contemplated entering, the tradables sector, and thus taking on the world, simply haven’t been able to find sufficient attractive and remunerative opportunities.

The pressures associated with post-earthquake rebuild expenditure will wane, and probably already are.  But meanwhile, policy continues, year in and year out, to supercharge our rate of population growth, bringing in huge numbers of modestly skilled people, to a location where the successful opportunities for firms to take on the world with great products and services seem to be growing much more slowly than the number of people living here.  The flawed policy –  shared across both main parties and several of the minor ones –  just keeps making it harder than it needs to be for New Zealanders as a whole to get ahead.   Our immigration policy was crazy when lots of New Zealanders were leaving each year, but it is even more deeply problematic when the travails of Australia’s labour market mean that the outflow has (probably temporarily) largely ceased.