Towards a definition of the (un)employment objective

In my post the other day, I outlined one way in which the unemployment concerns that appear to be behind the Labour Party’s desire to amend the statutory objective for monetary policy could be implemented in a new Policy Targets Agreement, even before the Reserve Bank Act itself is amended.

We still have no specifics as to how the Labour Party (and now the Labour-led government) envisages changing the Act.  But in an interview on Radio New Zealand this morning I heard the Minister of Finance talking about looking to the specifics of the Australian and US legislation.   I didn’t find that very enlightening or reassuring.

The Reserve Bank of Australia was set up in 1959, and the section of its legislation relating to monetary policy goals and objectives was in the original.

It is the duty of the Reserve Bank Board, within the limits of its powers, to ensure that the monetary and banking policy of the Bank is directed to the greatest advantage of the people of Australia and that the powers of the Bank … are exercised in such a manner as, in the opinion of the Reserve Bank Board, will best contribute to:

a.  the stability of the currency of Australia;

b.  the maintenance of full employment in Australia; and

c.  the economic prosperity and welfare of the people of Australia.

In 1959, Australia –  like most countries –  had a fixed exchange rate, so that “the stability of the currency of Australia” meant the external value of the currency.  The provision has since been re-interpreted, and as is now taken as meaning the domestic value of the currency (ie domestic price stability), but no one would write the provision that way today.

This wording is also legitimately subject to the criticism made by those who disagree with what Labour is proposing.  It makes no attempt to distinguish between the short and long run, and thus does not recognise that monetary policy cannot affect the longer-term rate of unemployment at all.    The Australian legislation also has nothing like a Policy Targets Agreement (the document that resembles a PTA is informal and non-binding) and provides far too much discretion to the Reserve Bank.  That discretion has not been blatantly misused in recent decades –  a period when the actual conduct of monetary policy in New Zealand and Australia have mostly been quite similar –  but the legislation should not provide any sort of model for New Zealand as to how best to specify the goals of monetary policy.

What of the United States?   Much is made of the “dual mandate” that has guided the Federal Reserve over the decades.   But even that, mostly quite sensible, conduct of policy rests on a rather slender and unreliable legislative footing.    The statutory objectives in the Federal Reserve Act were set out in 1977, around the high tide of monetarism, and read as follows:

Section 2A. Monetary policy objectives

The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Open Market Committee shall maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.

In other words, the Fed is actually mandated to pursue long-term money and credit growth targets, in the belief that doing so will promote (a) maximum employment, (b) stable prices, and (c) moderate long-term interest rates.  Again, no one would write the statutory objectives that way today, and the formulation should offer little or no guide to anyone looking to overhaul the objectives of our own central bank.  In practice, of course, the Federal Reserve works around the statutory formulation, rarely citing it directly.  I think they way they run monetary policy in practice is quite sensible –  and typically not that different to the way the Reserve Bank here has often run policy –  but I bet they wish Congress had written the goal a bit differently in 1977.

In an ideal world, both the Australian and US statutory provisions would be updated and amended.  It isn’t desirable to have powerful autonomous agencies working under the mandates that don’t reflect today’s understandings of policy, leading those agencies to creatively reinvent their own mandates.  Those reinventions probably lead to better policy in the short-run, but the process of doing so undermines confidence in the role of legislatures in mandating, and holding to account, such agencies.

If one looks around the advanced world, there are lots of different ways of specifying central bank objectives. In most cases, the wording is considerably more recent than either the US and Australian examples.  A few years ago a colleague and I did a Reserve Bank Bulletin article reviewing those formulations –  the work initially prompted by the approach of the 2014 election, when Labour was also proposing changes.   As we noted,

Despite the similarities in how monetary policy is operated, there is a wide range of ways in which legislation and supplementary documents specify the medium- and longer-run aims societies have for monetary policy. In some countries the focus is more on the economic outcomes that a successful monetary policy could contribute to over the longer-term.  In others it is more on what monetary policy can more directly achieve. These differences do not seem to primarily reflect very different views of what monetary policy could reasonably accomplish. Specific national circumstances influence how formal documents are written. And older legislation often looks different than legislation adopted in the past 10-20 years, with the latter typically having a more explicit focus on domestic price stability. In some countries, formal documents say relatively little about what monetary policy is expected to achieve, while in other countries the formal documentation is more extensive.

As I’ve noted here previously, I think the sort of statutory change Labour seems to be talking about makes some sense.  In part, that is because monetary policy has –  ever since the late 80s –  been a divisive political issue here in a way that it hasn’t been in other countries.  In part, it is because of the failings of the Reserve Bank –  with many fewer constraints than their peers in many other advanced countries –  over the Wheeler years in particular.    But I’m not sure that the way other countries have worded their legislation is going to be of very much assistance to Treasury and the Minister of Finance as they attempt to come up with some specific proposals.     If I was to offer them specific suggestions, they would involve changes to the purpose clauses , to the clause governing the primary function of monetary policy, to clause 10, and to the clause governing Monetary Policy Statements.

It is perhaps worth remembering that over the life of the Reserve Bank –  now 83 years –  there have been various different formulations of the statutory goals of monetary policy.  Those changing goals were also discussed in a Bulletin article a few years ago.  When the first legislation was enacted in 1933, the statutory goal was simple, if not specific

It shall be the primary duty of the Reserve Bank to exercise control […] over monetary circulation and credit in New Zealand, to the end that the economic welfare of the Dominion may be promoted and maintained (1933, s12).

It is worth remembering that it simply isn’t possible to write down, whether in statute or in a PTA, all that one wants a good central bank to do in conducting monetary policy.  Or, at least, it hasn’t been since we went off the Gold Standard in 1914.     There is no perfect formulation, and good people –  sound judgement and a good understanding of the issues and constraints –  matter as much as precise wording.  Each generation faces differing shocks, differing sets of circumstances, and different things that aren’t well understood.  It is easy, and tempting, simply to set out simple wording like what is in the Reserve Bank Act now.  So long as it is understood not to capture everything –  and successive Governors and Ministers have recognised that –  it may not do much harm, and it keeps a focus on the long-term limitations of monetary policy.  But, equally, we have active discretionary monetary policy because we believe that monetary policy can do other useful stuff in the short to medium term.  Finding ways that reflect that understanding and translating them into legislative wording has its risks –  as not doing so does –  and can’t be done perfectly, but that isn’t a reason for not doing it at all.

And finally, it is worth remembering that, whatever the precise statutory wording, past research has found that, on average, the Federal Reserve, the Reserve Bank of Australia, and the Reserve Bank of New Zealand have tended to conduct monetary policy in much the same way, faced with similar shocks.

 

 

 

Ill omens for our democracy

When, on Saturday afternoon, my son mentioned that a National Front protest had been driven out of Parliament grounds I was a bit puzzled.  “Do you mean in London?”, I asked.

But it turns out the event in question was here in Wellington.  I wasn’t aware we had a National Front in New Zealand.  They even have a website (which I am not linking to).

From various media accounts (Newshub, Stuff, Herald, Radio NZ), it seems that the National Front had, some weeks ago, sought and obtained permission to hold a rally in the grounds of Parliament on Saturday.  So far, so unsurprising,  All sort of groups hold rallies there.  Understandably enough, as it is our Parliament.   Some of those groups you agree with, some you disagree with, some are pretty odious, and some rallies you might even be tempted to join in (I never have).

But from the other side of the political spectrum –  far to the other side – there was a group who didn’t just dislike the National Front, deplore their views, disagree with them about almost everything, but thought it was wrong that such people should even be able to hold a rally and express their views.    And so out went a call to stop them.   Not just to hold a parallel rally, in the hope (perhaps) of attracting more attendees than the National Front.    No, the plan was to

We will stop their mobilisation

and

12-1pm: Blockade/stop the National Front

And, sure enough, they did.  (And they got a lot more people along than the National Front did.)   As the Dominion-Post story puts it

“Hundreds of anti-racism protestors chased National Front members from the grounds of Parliament on Saturday.

But this wasn’t just any group of thugs.    This was a rally addressed by two MPs from a party that is now part of the New Zealand government: Marama Davidson and Golriz Ghahraman of the Green Party.   There is no hint that these MPs stood in front of the rally and urged restraint, reminding the rally participants that we live in a free land, in a democracy, where the freedom to speak one’s mind, to protest –   perhaps especially in the grounds of Parliament –  is intrinsic to our liberty.   Or to point out that freedom of speech –  liberty –  means something only if it applies to those with whom one disagrees, perhaps very strongly.   The views might be odious, but the freedoms (should) matter a lot.  But apparently not to these two MPs, both of whose Twitter feeds suggest they were proud to have been involved in this small scale thuggery.

And small scale apparently it was.   At least according to the Dom-Post account, only about half a dozen National Front people turned up to their rally.  Others were apparently “in the pub down the road”.     Hard to imagine six of them would have got any media coverage at all, except perhaps a small, slightly derisive, note somewhere, without the efforts of the Green Party MPs and their fellow protestors.

About six National Front members made their way towards Parliament in pairs, at intervals.  However, each time they did not make it to the gate because the rally of protestors moved them towards Wellington’s railway station [not exactly just over the road].

…..    A few scuffles started but police intervened, surrounding the National Front members to escort them away.

This is our democracy?

Fortunately it was all on a very small scale, but it was disturbingly reminiscent of scenes in the US (and the UK) which have become increasingly violent.  Out of curiosity, I tried to find out whether the Antifa (“anti-fascist action”) group(s) had come to New Zealand.    There were a couple of Facebook pages, one of which was pretty vile indeed.   I hope it isn’t representative of anyone much.

But it does leave questions for (a) the two Green MPs, (b) James Shaw, minister of the Crown and Green Party leader, and (c) the Prime Minister.   Is the freedom to protest –  without fear of a bigger group of thugs breaking up the protest –  something they believe in?  Does it apply even to groups you disagree with strongly, or only to those who support comfortable causes?  And does the Prime Minister regard the involvement of members of Parliament, from a party whose votes she relies on to govern, in such disruptive rallies as acceptable conduct? In the grounds of Parliament no less?   As a reminder, there is no merit in defending the right to speak or to protest of those ones happens to agree with, or whose views one is simply indifferent to.  It only means something if you stand up  for, and respect, the rights of those you strongly disagree with, perhaps even deplore.

These are, after all, MPs who should know better.   Davidson herself participates in protests in support of overseas terrorist organisation.  I count that as pretty despicable, but it is her right (at least in New Zealand).  Ghahraman is apparently a “human rights lawyer”.  I don’t put much stock by the New Zealand Bill of Rights myself, but it is an act of the New Zealand Parliament of which Ghahraman is now a member.  It states, quite simply,

16 Freedom of peaceful assembly

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

Without being disrupted by thugs.  Without being escorted off the premises by the Police (for their own protection?)  And no matter how odious their views.   Our system is supposed to work by airing and debating differences, and then respecting the rights of each others to hold, and express, differing views.   The National Front is not a particularly sympathetic organisation, but in the famous words of the German pastor, Martin Niemoller, regretting, after the war, his own failure to take a stand earlier.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Who will Marama Davidson and Golriz Ghahraman, and their supporters, be coming for next?

As it is, Saturday’s affair looks like a win for the National Front and a loss for our democracy, aided –  indeed egged on – by members of Parliament.  That’s sad on both counts.

ADDENDUM: (Wednesday 1 Nov)

I’m hesitant about adding this material, but I had an unsolicited email out of the blue from someone who describes himself as chair of the National Front.  These were the relevant comments.

However I would like to point out something that the media will not report even though they were informed.

The Flag Day attempt at 11:30 was a fake attempt to confuse the anti-White mob

Our actual event went ahead as planned a few hours later, once the mob had been satiated with a fake victory.

And perhaps more interestingly

We received our permit to assemble at Parliament around September 3.

We forwarded our intentions to the NZ Police as we do every year.

We contacted the Green Party before the date of the event to let them know we were receiving violent threats from the group that was going to be fronted by their MP’s.

We asked the Greens to please withdraw from the event.

If those latter comments are a correct description of what went on, they would appear to strengthen the argument that the Green MPs and the Green Party leader owe the public an explanation about their part in this.

If there is any further comment from any of them, I will link to it here.

Towards a Fiscal Council

Earlier in the year, the Labour and Greens parties released a set of Budget Responsibility Rules, envisaged at time as being the rules that would guide the two parties if they were in a position to form a government.    The actual new government, of course, includes New Zealand First, with the Greens at a partial arms-length.  Then again, James Shaw is now an Associate Minister of Finance.    The status of these rules isn’t clear, but since they haven’t been disavowed I’m assuming they will, at least broadly, provide the basis for the new government’s fiscal policy.

I wrote about the rules at the time they were announced.  I didn’t have too much problem with them, but outlined a number of areas where details might matter quite a lot –  including, for example, the fact that the appropriate prudent level of the fiscal balance should depend, in part, on the expected rate of population growth –  and areas where what look like very well-intentioned rules can be open to being gamed, potentially in quite sub-optimal ways.

My main interest, then as now, was in this item

Measuring our success in government

  • The credibility of our Budget Responsibility Rules requires a mechanism that makes the government accountable. Independent oversight will provide the public with confidence that the government is sticking to the rules.
  • We will establish a body independent of Ministers of the Crown who will be responsible for determining if these rules are being met. The body will also have oversight of government economic and fiscal forecasts, shall provide an independent assessment of government forecasts to the public, and will cost policies of opposition parties.

Labour and the Greens promised to establish a Fiscal Council.

If so, they will have plenty of support.  The OECD has regularly advocated the creation of such a body.  So –  from the right –  has the New Zealand Initiative.   Such entities are pretty common in advanced economies now, especially in Europe.

A few years ago, The Treasury commissioned Teresa Ter-Minassian, former head of the IMF’s Fiscal Affairs Department, to undertake an independent review of The Treasury’s fiscal policy advice.      She looked at the possibility of establishing a Fiscal Council, and wrote as follows:

As regards the possible creation of a Fiscal Council, if it were established, it should probably have a more limited role in New Zealand than in most other countries that have created similar institutions. A more limited remit for the Council would be justified by the degree of operational independence of the Treasury in forecasting and policy analysis, its well-established non-partisan reputation, its sound record of relatively accurate and unbiased macroeconomic and fiscal forecasts, and the already strict fiscal accounting and transparency requirements mandated by the Public Finance Act.

The main purpose of the Council would be to offer an independent expert perspective and commentary on the advice provided by the Treasury to the Government on fiscal policy issues, and on the decisions taken by the Government and the Parliament on those issues. Such a Council would not need to operate on a full-time basis, and therefore would not be very costly.

If the Council was constituted by a small number of well-respected national, and possibly international, figures, with substantial fiscal expertise, previous policy experience, and strong communication skills, its commentaries at key points in the budget cycle, and on such important documents as the Long-Term Fiscal Statement and the Investment Statement, could help increase the resonance of fiscal policy options and choices with the media and the public opinion, and build social consensus on needed reforms.

There are two, quite separable, dimensions to the Labour/Greens proposal.  The first element is that the Council

will be responsible for determining if these rules are being met. The body will also have oversight of government economic and fiscal forecasts, shall provide an independent assessment of government forecasts to the public,

and the second is that it

will cost policies of opposition parties.

In general, I support the establishment of a small body to do something along the lines of the first of those sets of responsibilities.  This is what I wrote earlier in the year

The main area where a fiscal council –  or indeed, a broad macro policy advisory council –  could add value is around the bigger picture of fiscal policy (not just rule compliance, but how the rules might best be specified, and what it does (and doesn’t) make sense to try to do with fiscal policy).

But there are still important caveats.  For example, it is fine to talk in terms of the council having “oversight of government economic and fiscal forecasts”, but quite what level of resource would that involve?  Does the proposal envisage that the core forecasting role, on which government bases its policies, would move outside Treasury?  Even if there was some merit in that, it would be likely to end up with considerable duplication –  since neither the Treasury nor the Minister is likely to want to be without the capability to have their own analysis done, or to critique the work of the fiscal council.  The UK’s experience is likely to be instructive here, but we also need to recognise the small size of New Zealand and the limited pool of available expertise.  Our population –  and GDP –  are less than a 10th of the UK’s.

Again, I think Labour and Greens are moving in the right direction here, so I’m keen to see a good robust institution created, not to undermine the proposal.   The success of such a body over time will depend a lot on getting the right people to sit on the Council, and to keep the total size of the agency in check.   Too large and it will be an easy target for some other future government –  no doubt enthusiastically offered up by a Treasury keen to remove a competing source of advice.  But make it too small, or with too many establishment figures on the Council, and people will quickly wonder what is the point.  As it is, we don’t have a lot of independent fiscal expertise in New Zealand at present (as distinct, say, from specific expertise on eg aspects of the tax system).   I presume that if they form a government later in the year, Labour and the Greens will be looking quickly to the experiences in this area of small advanced countries like Ireland and Sweden.

It would simply not be possible to offer any sort of detailed oversight of the Treasury’s economic and fiscal forecasts –  that went beyond the sort of commentary market economists or even people like me can add to the mix from time to time –  without a reasonably significant staff establishment (people who are over lots of detail, including around revenue forecasts).    And I’m not sure what would be gained by doing so.  We don’t have an obvious problem in that area.  And as the Ter-Minassian report points out, unlike the situation in many countries, the published and economic and fiscal forecasts in New Zealand are those of The Treasury, not those of the Minister of Finance.   One can overstate the importance of the difference –  the Secretary to the Treasury has a lot of irons in the fire with the Minister at any one time and so it is hard to envisage the Treasury forecasts being too different from what a Minister might prefer –  but it does provide some protection.

A Fiscal Council seems more likely to add value if it is positioned (normally) at one remove from the detailed forecasting business, offering advice and analysis on the fiscal rules themselves (design and implementation) and how best to think about the appropriate fiscal policy rules.  The Council might also, for example, be able to provide some useful advice on what material might usefully be included in the PREFU  (before the election, I noted that routine publication of a baseline scenario that projected expenditure using the inflation and population pressures used in the Treasury economic forecasts would be a helpful step forward).

As I noted in the earlier comments, presumably the government will be wanting to look at what is done in other small advanced countries.  Ireland (total cost around NZ$1m per annum) and Sweden are obvious examples.    Having said that, countries that are part of the EU (and especially the euro area) have some distinctive issues that aren’t relevant to New Zealand.  For a country in the euro, fiscal policy is the only short-term cyclical management tool available, and the risks of a tension between the short and long-term are greater, and there is less of an independent check on serious fiscal imbalances from monetary policy.   There is unlikely to be a simple-to-replicate off-the-shelf model that can quickly be adopted here, and some work will be needed on devising a cost-effective sustainable model, relevant to New Zealand’s specific circumstances.  That is partly about the details of the legislation (mandate, resourcing etc), but also partly about identifying the right sort of mix of people –  some mix of specific professional expertise, an independent cast of mind, communications skills, and so on.  A useful Fiscal Council won’t be constantly disagreeing with Treasury or the Minister of Finance (but won’t be afraid to do so when required), but will be bringing different perspectives to bear on the issues, to inform a better quality independent debate on fiscal issues.

I also wonder whether consideration should be given not just to a Fiscal Council but to something a bit broader, what I’ve labelled as a Macroeconomic Advisory Council.   The governance and monitoring model for the Reserve Bank is up for review.   There seems to be pretty widespread support for moving to a (legislated) committee-based decisionmaking model for monetary policy.    Few people seem to have yet focused on the Bank’s financial stability and regulatory functions, but the case for a committee is at least as strong for those functions.   And few people –  other than, presumably past Governor and Board members –  think the Reserve Bank’s Board has done a particularly effective job in holding the Governor to account.     Perhaps that model was always unrealistic –  the Board was inevitably always going to be too close to the Governor that it would focus more on having his or her back than on holding the Governor to account on behalf of the public.  Perhaps it is time to move away from that model, and consider whether the public interest might better be served by asking an independent Macroeconomic Advisory Council to contribute to the debate, and periodic review, of monetary policy and financial stability policy, in a similar way to what Fiscal Council proposals have in mind for fiscal policy.   Again, it wouldn’t be about second-guessing individual OCR decisions or specific sets of forecasts, but offering perspectives on the framework and rules, and some periodic ex-post assessment.    In a small country, it would also have the appeal of offering some critical mass to any new Council.

(I touched on this option in a post written in the very early days of this blog, where I linked to a discussion note on similar issues I had written in 2014. )

The second responsibility of the proposed Labour/Greens fiscal council would be the cost of policies for Opposition political parties.  I’m much more sceptical about that proposal, even though it has recently had support from Peter Wilson (formerly of The Treasury) at NZIER, and from the New Zealand Initiative.  I wrote about this idea at some length when the Greens first proposed a Policy Costings Unit (an idea which attracted quite a bit of support from across the spectrum).    I wasn’t opposed, just sceptical.  That remains my position today, and the recent election campaign –  the first for decades I’ve watched not as a public servant –  hasn’t changed my views.

This is what I wrote last January

In the end, people often don’t vote for one party or another on the basis of detailed costings, but on “mood affiliation” –  a sense that the party’s general ideas are sympathetic to the broad direction one favours.  And I can’t think of a New Zealand election in my time when the results have been materially determined by the costings (accurate or inaccurate) of party promises  – perhaps in 1975 National might have won a smaller majority if the cost of National Superannuation had been better, and more openly, costed, but I doubt it would have changed the overall result.

And then, of course, there is the fact that economists, and public agencies largely made up of economists, have their own predispositions and biases.    The Economist touched on this issue quite recently.  It isn’t that economists are necessarily worse than other “experts”, or that people consciously set out to favour one side or another in politics, but (say) whatever the merits of the sorts of policies the Greens have favoured, it is unlikely that the New Zealand Treasury (1984-90) would have evaluated them in ways that the Greens would have found fair and balanced.  Perhaps ACT might have the same reaction to today’s Treasury?  If it were only narrow fiscal costings an agency was being asked to evaluate, perhaps these predispositions of the analysts would not matter unduly (although even there, much depends on the behavioural assumptions one makes), but the Greens’ proposal includes analysis of the “wider economic implications” of policy proposals.

On balance, I still think there is a role for something like a (macro oriented) fiscal council in New Zealand, perhaps subsumed within the sort of macroeconomic or monetary and economic council I suggested here (but perhaps that just reflects my macro background).   And there is probably a role for better-resourcing select committees.  But when it comes to political party proposals, if (and I don’t think the case is open and shut by any means) we are going to spend more public money on the process, I would probably prefer to provide a higher level of funding to parliamentary parties, to enable them to commission any independent evaluations or expertise they found useful, and then have the parties fight it out in the court of public opinion.  The big choices societies face mostly aren’t technocratic in nature, and I’m not sure that the differences between whether individual proposals are properly costed or not is that important in the scheme of things (and perhaps less so than previously under MMP, where all promises are provisional, given that absolute parliamentary majorities are very rare).  If there are serious doubts about the costings, let the politicians (and the experts each can marshall) contest the matter.

Was there a problem in the most recent election?  There was a big debate around Steven Joyce’s claims of a “fiscal hole” in Labour’s plans.     But it seemed to get sorted out in the ensuing debate.  Various experts weighed in –  including the anonymous group of former senior Treasury officials – and a reasonable consensus seemed to emerge: Joyce had probably over-egged his claim, but that the Labour fiscal numbers would be tight indeed, perhaps very tight.     Was there a need for extra taxpayer-funded analysis to deal with those claims (which were as much about framing as about bottom-line numbers anyway)?  I don’t see the gap.    And arguments about a capital gains tax, for example, don’t really depend on (soft as soap bubbles) revenue estimates, but about the merits (and demerits) of such a possible tax.  That is the stuff of the political debate.  It is up to each side to marshall their arguments –  and experts, to the extent they are helpful –  and for those of us offering independent commentary to play some role in shedding light on the claims and evidence that are put forward.     Treasury officials –  even if seconded to a Fiscal Council –  certainly can’t be regarded as a disinterested voice on such an issue.

And some of the very biggest issues of the election campaign were around emissions reduction, water use and pollution, child poverty reduction, and even immigration.  Policy in each of those areas probably has some fiscal dimensions, but in few of those areas are fiscal considerations likely to be the key factor –  whether in shaping how people vote, or in the potential economic and social ramifications of the options voters are deciding among.    Actually, the same could be said of housing policy –  a costing unit might focus on whether the KiwiBuild costings looked plausible, but that is probably of second order importance to reaching a view on what overall mix of housing. tax, land use, immigration policies might offer the best way back to a functional and affordable housing market.

As it is, election costings unit haven’t become generally established in other countries, and outside the Netherlands, I can’t a single example that seems to be working very well.  NZIER’s (Australian) economist seemed keen on the Australian approach.  Unless I missed something, when I checked their election costings website for the last Federal election, not a single policy of the main opposition party (Labor) had been costed through that process.    Labor ran the incumbent (first-term) government extremely close in that election, and it wasn’t obvious at the time that they paid any price for not utilising that process.  And nor is it obvious why they should: in the end each voter gets just one vote (well, ok, both NZ and Australian systems are a bit more complex than that, but you get my point) and in deciding to how to cast that vote, most of us are probably making some  sort of overall assessment of the values, competence, vision of the respective parties, on whether or not it is “time for change”, and so on.  We simply don’t decide –  and probably are quite rational in doing so –  by attempting to evaluate detailed policy costings, or the regulatory equivalent.  In New Zealand, apart from anything else, we know that the election policies are opening bids, going into government formation negotiations.  We also know that incumbent government are advised, on details, by fairly competent officials, and that successive governments have a track record of managing overal fiscal policy in a fairly responsible way –  sometimes blindsided by events, but usually events that not even the wisest Treasury or Fiscal Council will have foreseen.

If anything, I’ve become more sceptical of the policy costing unit idea than I was when the Greens first raised the option.    Such a unit probably can’t do much harm, but it is hard to see it doing much good either, and risks skewing debate away from the issues that, in any election, matter rather more.  It is, perhaps, a Treasury official’s dream but –  valuable as good Treasury officials are –  not what will help voters evaluate competing visions and aspirations for how best our country should be governed.

 

A possible new Policy Targets Agreement

“we have unemployment stuck stubbornly at 5% when it should be below 4%”

Those were the words of the Prime Minister in her speech to the CTU on Wednesday.  The latest published unemployment rate was a bit below 5 per cent.   But the average for the last four quarters is 4.95 per cent, and that for the last seven quarters is 5.0 per cent.

And “it should be below 4%”?   That’s a great aspiration –  ideally the unemployment rate should be much lower than 4 per cent, because even 2.5 per cent means that over a 40 year working life the average person spends a whole year unemployed – ie without any work, but ready to start work, and actively looking for work.     But I presume the reference to “below 4%” is more than that, and is something about what is attainable (sustainably) on, broadly speaking, the current labour market regulations, demographics, and welfare provisions.   Most observers think that the rate of unemployment consistent with stable inflation near the target is around 4 per cent.    Some, plausibly –  but we won’t know unless/until we get there – think it is lower than that.   Certainly there has been no sign of any acceleration in wage inflation with the unemployment rate near 5 per cent.

Most material deviations of the unemployment rate from the true (but not directly observable) long-run sustainable rate are, to a first approximation, due to monetary policy choices.    That was true in years leading up to 2008, when the unemployment rate was lower than the long-run sustainable rate –  monetary policy was too loose, and inflation was rising to outside the target band.  It has been true for the last eight or nine years when, at least with hindsight, monetary policy has mostly been a bit too tight. People who are unemployed, unnecessarily, have paid the price.    It isn’t the done thing to mention this in polite society –  few of whose members are affected directly by unemployment –  but it is true nonetheless.

And so I welcome the fact that we have a government that says it is serious about expecting the Reserve Bank to run monetary policy in a way that promotes full employment –  keeping unemployment as low as is consistent with a sustainable low and stable inflation rate.     I like the fact that the Prime Minister talks about lowering unemployment in her first speech.  (Whether she will do so as readily later in her term is another question).    And I’ve come to agree that adding some reference to unemployment to the mandate given to the Reserve Bank is desirable.     It has always been implicit.  We have active discretionary monetary policy to minimise the output and employment losses when severe adverse shocks hit.  Otherwise, we’d have stuck with the Gold Standard, which was really good for delivering long-run average price stability but –  by design –  less good at short-term stabilisation.

The New Zealand Initiative –  from the right –  disagrees.   In their newsletter this week Oliver Hartwich writes

Yet the real problem is that dual mandates do not work, not even in theory. They are the result of a misunderstanding as anyone who studied economics over the past half a century would know.

The best way for a central bank to achieve both low inflation and low unemployment is to make it pursue price stability alone.

The next RBNZ governor will no doubt be aware of that. In which case, she could safely ignore any dual mandate passed down from the new Government. And keep focussing on targeting inflation.

But that is simply not so.    It is certainly true that over the medium to longer-term monetary policy can only affect nominal variables (inflation, nominal GDP or whatever) and has no impact on real ones such as unemployment.  Most everyone agrees on that.  But it is equally true that monetary policy actions have a short to medium term impact on real variables, not just on prices.  Indeed, in the short-term the real effects are often larger than the price ones.   It isn’t something one can exploit to get unemployment permanently lower –  the long-run Phillips curve is more or less vertical – but it does mean that all discretionary choices about monetary policy are simultaneously choices about both inflation and output/unemployment.  The Reserve Bank knows that.  In fact, every advanced country central bank –  in countries with fairly stable inflation expectations –  knows that.

There is also some disagreement from the left.  In his column in yesterday’s Herald, Brian Fallow was sceptical about Labour’s proposed changes (the details of which we have not yet seen)

…in a later speech outlining his approach, Robertson said: “Had a mandate to maintain full employment been in operation in New Zealand it is likely that it would have constrained the bank’s [subsequently] aborted tightening of the official cash rate in 2010 and 2014. This would in turn likely have seen a faster return to target inflation and faster economic growth.”

Well, maybe. But counterfactual assertions about what would have happened if what did happen had not happened stand on epistemologically boggy ground.

Back here in the actual world, data from the OECD last week shows that New Zealand’s employment rate – the proportion of people aged between 15 and 64 who are employed – is at 76.2 per cent, the fourth highest level among the OECD’s 35 members.

Fallow goes on at some length about employment rates.   But employment rates simply aren’t the relevant variable for monetary policy (although they might tell us about all sorts of other areas of labour market, tax, retirement income etc policies): unemployment rates (and other measures of excess capacity) are.   People who want a job, are available now to start work, who are actively searching for a job, but just can’t find one.

(Having said that, as I’ve written previously I’m not sure that simply a different mandate would have changed the policy mistake of 2014.    With most reasonable possible formulations of an unemployment objective, a hawkish Governor misreading the data (as Wheeler was) would have been likely to have made the same mistake: the right person (“people” when they move to a committee model) matter at least as much as any tweaks to the formal mandate.)

I noticed in the Dominion-Post this morning what appeared to be a suggestion that amendments to the statutory goal for monetary policy might find their way onto the government’s 100 day plan, perhaps in part to ensure that the new mandate was in place before the new Governor is due to take office in March.

No doubt such a limited statutory change could be done quite quickly.  To simply make that narrow change would involve quite a short piece of legislation.  But getting the words right matters – and it isn’t something Parliament should be changing frequently.

Then again, all parties to the new government have also favoured changes to the governance model of the Reserve Bank, and that isn’t something that should be rushed.  The focus to date has been on monetary policy decisionmaking, but the case for reform is probably stronger for the Bank’s financial regulatory functions (where there is nothing akin to the PTA, and too much depends on what is little more than personal gubernatorial whim).   Getting the right governance model for these two quite different functions, and for all the remaining functions of the Bank, and all the consequential changes, takes time to do properly, and would benefit from a full Select Committee process.

As it happens, much of what the government appears to want to achieve can be done through the Policy Targets Agreement anyway.   There is no (lawful) Policy Targets Agreement at present, but a new one needs to be agreed with the incoming Governor before he or she is appointed.   Since the proposed emphasis on unemployment is implicit in the existing framework anyway – it is what a Governor doing his or her job should be keeping a keen eye on in determining the appropriate stance of policy –  simply writing it down more explicitly in the PTA does not raise any particular issues of inconsistency with the existing legislation.

Some might question that, but I’ve had a go at producing a concrete draft of a PTA that captures what seems likely to be the sorts of issues that motivated the Labour Party to promote legislative change.     The resulting text (below) isn’t my ideal framing of the PTA.  Instead, I worked with the text of the most recent document and made as few changes as possible while (a) capturing the spirit of the proposed changes, and (b) avoiding any inconsistency with the existing legislation.  I’ve highlighted the three paragraphs where I’ve proposed changes:

  • 1(b), a now-customary part of the document, where the government of the day lays out briefly its economic objectives, and how it sees monetary policy fitting in,
  • 3(b) where I’ve added words to make clear what has been well-understood since day 1 of inflation targeting, that in managing deviations of inflation from target a key consideration is to minimise short-term output and employment costs, and
  • a new 4(c) which would require the Bank to publish NAIRU estimates, explain why any (actual or forecast) deviations of the actual rate from those estimates was occurring, and to explain what steps it was taking (with monetary policy) to minimise the extent (magnitude and time) of those deviations.

There might well be improvements to this suggested wording.  But these, relatively simple, changes could quickly give effect to what seems to be the thrust of Labour’s proposals.   I’d welcome any comments or alternative suggestions.

Of course, if the government is serious about making a difference –  rather than just signalling one – words alone won’t suffice, whether in the PTA or the Act.  They need to take steps also to find, and put in office, the right people.  The combination –  people and mandate –  gives us a more serious chance of getting unemployment down to around the long-run sustainable rate, and keeping it near there as much as possible, than continuation of the status quo.

These are changes of the sort that the leading academic who reviewed the Reserve Bank’s handling of monetary policy for the previous Labour goverment  (Lars Svensson) would seem likely to endorse.  Svensson served subsequently for several years on the Monetary Policy Board of the central bank of Sweden, where his firm advocacy of an unemployment focus helped get Swedish monetary policy back on track, delivering lower unemployment and inflation nearer the target.  He might be worth consulting again.

Policy Targets Agreement

This agreement between the Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (the Bank) is made under section 9 of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand Act 1989 (the Act). The Minister and the Governor agree as follows:

1. Price stability

a) Under Section 8 of the Act the Reserve Bank is required to conduct monetary policy with the goal of maintaining a stable general level of prices.

b) The Government’s economic objective is to promote a growing economy in which full employment is achieved and maintained.   The management of monetary policy, subject to the medium-term constraint of a low and stable inflation rate, plays an important part in supporting this objective.

2. Policy target

a) In pursuing the objective of a stable general level of prices, the Bank shall monitor prices, including asset prices, as measured by a range of price indices. The price stability target will be defined in terms of the All Groups Consumers Price Index (CPI), as published by Statistics New Zealand.

b) For the purpose of this agreement, the policy target shall be to keep future CPI inflation outcomes between 1 per cent and 3 per cent on average over the medium term, with a focus on keeping future average inflation near the 2 per cent target midpoint.

3. Inflation variations around target

a) For a variety of reasons, the actual annual rate of CPI inflation will vary around the medium-term trend of inflation, which is the focus of the policy target. Amongst these reasons, there is a range of events whose impact would normally be temporary. Such events include, for example, shifts in the aggregate price level as a result of exceptional movements in the prices of commodities traded in world markets, changes in indirect taxes, significant government policy changes that directly affect prices, or a natural disaster affecting a major part of the economy.

b) When disturbances of the kind described in clause 3(a) arise, and consistent with a goal of minimising the short-term output and employment costs, the Bank will respond consistent with meeting its medium-term target.

4. Communication, implementation and accountability

a) On occasions when the annual rate of inflation is outside the medium-term target range, or when such occasions are projected, the Bank shall explain in Policy Statements made under section 15 of the Act why such outcomes have occurred, or are projected to occur, and what measures it has taken, or proposes to take, to ensure that inflation outcomes remain consistent with the medium-term target.

b) In pursuing its price stability objective, the Bank shall implement monetary policy in a sustainable, consistent and transparent manner, have regard to the efficiency and soundness of the financial system, and seek to avoid unnecessary instability in output, interest rates and the exchange rate.

c) The Bank shall publish its estimates of the sustainable long-run rate of unemployment in each Policy Statement made under section 15 of the Act.   When the unemployment rate (as measured in the HLFS) deviates, or is forecast to deviate, from this estimate the Bank shall explain why these outcomes are occurring, or are expected to occur, and what steps it is taking to minimise the extent to which the unemployment rate deviates from its estimate of the long-run sustainable rate.

c) The Bank shall be fully accountable for its judgements and actions in implementing monetary policy.

Grant Robertson
Minister of FInance

 

…….
Governor Designate
Reserve Bank of New Zealand

Dated at Wellington this ..th day of …. 201….

 

 

 

 

Reflecting on foreign ownership

[An Australian website yesterday reproduced, without my permission, my entire post on the new government’s immigration policy, running it under the heading “Is Jacinda Ardern a fake?”.   That heading does not –  even in the slightest –  represent my view.  I’m assuming the new government will do as they said in their manifesto.   And while I’m a bit sceptical as to how committed the new Prime Minister really is –  the policy having been adopted under her predecessor and she never having talked about it in public fora – the point of the article was (a) that the policy itself does not represent any significant change in the likely future contribution of immigration to population growth, and (b) that various overseas commentators have taken the, quite clearly laid out, Labour policy as something much more dramatic than it actually is.]

A few weeks ago, my 14 year son, mad-keen on ancient history and starting to study economics as well, brought home from the library a book about the economy and society of ancient Greece.  I’m not sure he read much of it, but I found it fascinating.   Among the things I learned was that the ancient Greek states, Athens most notably, generally banned foreigners – even resident foreigners – from owning land.   These states were typically actively engaged in international trade, and often encouraged foreigners with particular specialised skills to settle among them.  So it clearly wasn’t an autarkic approach –  some sort of isolation and national self-sufficiency.

But it caught my attention partly in the context of the change of government here, and the proposed new restrictions on non-resident foreigners being able to purchase existing dwellings.   But the issue goes wider than that, and the ambivalence about foreign investment and foreign ownership of New Zealand assets dates back decades at least.    And the Labour-New Zealand First agreement commits to

“strengthen the Overseas Investment Act and undertake a comprehensive register of foreign-owned land and housing”

This in a country where the OECD already rates our existing restrictions on foreign investment as more severe than those of almost any other advanced country (even if there is some genuine debate about how restrictive our screening regime –  what counts in the index –  actually is).

Of course, the proposed ban (which could yet turn into a heavy tax, to get around FTA constraints) on foreign purchases of existing properties, isn’t really much of a ban on foreign ownership at all.  Non-resident foreigners would be able to purchase a brand new house, with no particular restrictions, but not an existing house.    Since new and existing houses are, to a considerable extent, substitutes –  especially if you aren’t planning on living in the house – it isn’t even clear why the proposed ban would do more than throw a little sand in the wheels.   And land-use restrictions have been the main source of driving house+land prices far beyond sensible levels –  the best alternative use of those resources.   So it isn’t clear why a restriction on non-resident foreign purchases of existing houses will do anything to lower the price (increase effective supply) of developable urban land.   If governments can’t, or won’t, fix the land market, there might be more logic in a total ban on non-resident foreigners purchasing dwellings in New Zealand.   Were there to be strong evidence of a significant effect on our market of such non-resident foreign purchases, I could see a reasonable second or third-best case for such a restriction.  I’d prioritise the ability of our own people –  immigrant or native –  to buy a house+land over the freedom to sell to non-resident foreigners.    That’s a value judgement, but one I’m comfortable with.

To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of the data we have.  Lots of people are quite sceptical of the LINZ data, but I’m still struck by how high the non-resident numbers actually seem to be, at least in Auckland and Queenstown (the numbers are very small elsewhere).   For the first six months of this year, almost 5 per cent of Auckland gross sales were to buyers wholly or partly non tax residents of New Zealand.  In Queenstown-Lakes, the proportion was more than 10 per cent.   There were non-resident sellers as well, of course.  And some of those people (on both sides) were New Zealand citizens –  eg a New Zealander who has settled in Australia, no longer treated as a tax resident of New Zealand, and a few years later sells a New Zealand property.  But at a time when Chinese data show that capital outflows from China have hugely diminished

cap outflows

it is rather surprising how many purchases (net) were still being made by Chinese tax residents, even on the LINZ data with all its limitations.    (In Auckland, net Chinese purchases make up more than the total net foreign purchases –  ie people tax resident in other countries were net sellers.)   And recall that China is the issue simply because the place is currently so badly governed –  absent the rule of law –  that its own people don’t feel safe keeping their money in their own country: we never had an influx of Japanese, French or British purchasers.

With a well-functioning urban land market, sales of houses/apartments to non-resident foreigners  –  even ones that just sat empty –  could be just a modestly rewarding export industry.   But we are a very long way from that sort of well-functioning market.

In Eric Crampton’s piece the other day, he highlighted that the proposed restriction would affect those here on work visas, as well as those who were not resident at all.   If so, that was something I hadn’t realised.   But his argument against drawing the line there wasn’t particularly persuasive

If someone is building a life here, it shouldn’t matter what visa they’re on.

But it does.   If you are here on a student visa, or a temporary work visa, you might well hope you are now on a path to “a life here”.  There might even, in some cases, be an implied expectation that that is how things will turn out.  But New Zealand has not made a decision, at that point, to grant your wish.  It does that only at the point where you get a residence visa (and then permanent residence).  At that point we’ve said you can stay,  but not before.  If there is going to be ban or a tax, I don’t have a strong view on where the line should be drawn (there are avoidance issues wherever it is drawn).  In practice though, not many people going to another country (or even another city) for just a couple of years will buy a house –  the transactions costs are just too high –  so if we are going to impose restrictions, I’m not convinced drawing the line in a place that banned those on temporary visas would be particularly problematic.

But restrictions on non-resident purchases of urban dwellings are mostly a second-order distraction from the real regulatory failures that have rendered house prices here –  and in similar places abroad (eg Australia, UK, California) –  so unaffordable.

Perhaps more sensitive, and more difficult, issues are around other foreign ownership issues.  In reading around how they did things in Athens, I noted that foreigners might not have been able to own property, but they had the same access to the courts as citizens.  These days, however, we –  and many other countries –  go one further and give foreign investors better access to dispute resolution than we provide to domestic investors, through the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions included in numerous preferential trade and investment agreements, including TPP (and presumably the replacement for it, now close to finalisation).    I wrote about these provisions back in 2015, quoting a writer for the New Yorker

“these provisions have been opposed by an unusual coalition of progressives and conservatives”

and a contributor to –  not exactly left-wing – Forbes magazine that ISDS provisions represent a

“subsidy to business that comes at the expense of domestic investment and the rule of law”

In a country with a good quality legal system, it should simply be offensive and unacceptable that we provide foreign investors access to different courts and dispute settlement procedures, under different rules, than are available to domestic firms (even in the same industry).   Equal status before the law is –  or was –  one of the cardinal principles of our democracy.    At very least, citizens should always have at least as good rights as non-citizens or non-residents.   (And that should apply to our citizens when operating in other countries, relative to the citizens of those countries –  but that is an issue for those governments, not ours.)

What of the foreign investment itself?

There are easy cases, at either end of the spectrum.  I don’t suppose anyone much is going to have a problem with a foreign investment fund owning an office block in Queen St.  And I don’t anyone would have opposed restrictions if, say, the Soviet Union had found willing sellers for the whole of Stewart Island.

The hard stuff is where to draw the line between those extremes.   There is a case –  I think generally quite a good one –  for a pretty relaxed view for most potential buyers and most potential assets.  In part, that is a property rights view.  If I own an asset and want to sell it, government restrictions on who can buy the asset lowers, probabilistically, the price I can command.  It is, in the jargon, an uncompensated regulatory taking.     Then again, a lot of the value of any (location-specific) asset arises from choices society has made collectively, about institutional quality, rule of law, good governance etc.  Auckland airport, for example, wouldn’t be worth much if New Zealand were an ill-governed hell-hole.

There is also the argument that the New Zealand and, in time, New Zealanders generally will benefit most if the assets are owned by those best able to utilise them.    When foreign investors bring technology or management expertise to a New Zealand industry or opportunity that isn’t as developed here, it is likely that in time there will be a wider benefit to New Zealand.  That was how, for example, Tasman Pulp and Paper was set up, under government sponsorship in the 1950s.  Or Comalco.  (And, yes, I deliberately choose examples where there might be some doubts as to whether these firms should have established here in the first place.)

There are also diversification arguments.  It bothers some people, but doesn’t really bother me, that most of our banking system is foreign-owned.  There are some possible downsides –  and we might have been better off if the foreign ownership was not so concentrated in Australia –  but my reading of the international (and New Zealand) experience is that we are probably better off (more stable) for having a largely-foreign owned banking system.

There are also bureaucratic competence/incentives arguments. Our current overseas investment act in many cases requires demonstrating that a proposed foreign purchase would be “beneficial to New Zealand”.   Beyond the evidence of, say, a foreign buyer being willing to offer the highest price, how comfortable can we be that officials and politicians have the ability or incentives to make those judgements correctly?

There are also arguments about debt vs equity.    You might, in some cases, worry about control passing to foreign owners.  But if domestic owners are reliant on lots of foreign debt there can be different, but at times more intense, levels of vulnerability.    Debt can be called up, or simply not rolled over.

Foreign investment has played a significant part in New Zealand’s economic history, and its economic development.  Sometimes in quite odd ways: the protectionist insulationist policies of post-war New Zealand encouraged quite a high degree of private direct foreign investment, as the most cost-effective way for foreign firms to get their products into the New Zealand market (inefficient and costly as it may have been for New Zealanders).  But my reading of the New Zealand evidence and data is that foreign investment restrictions aren’t to any material extent what holds New Zealand’s productivity performance back.  It is a more a case of there being too few good profitable new potential investment opportunities, whether for domestic investors or foreign.

None of this is really an argument for a laissez-faire approach, even if I’d still be more hands-off than most New Zealanders might.      National cohesion and national identity aren’t easy to pin down, but are both real and important.  And part of that –  perhaps especially in a small country –  is the control/ownership of land.   I find it quite plausible that there might be international agricultural operators who could add new and different value to New Zealand operations through ownership and management of substantial parcels of agricultural land.  But if, on the other hand, a growing number of wealthy offshore people simply wanted to own South Island stations and install local managers to farm much as they always have, I also don’t care very much if political unease is real enough that we end up simply saying “no” to such purchases on a large scale.  Again, at an extreme, if non-resident non-citizen buyers ended up owning 80 per cent of the land in some locality –  be it Northland or central Otago, or wherever –  then I think we’d have undermined something about what it means to be New Zealand –  given undue weight, including in local government, to the interests of people who aren’t part of this polity – in that area.     A country is some mix of people in some specific place; a bundle of tangible people and land, not just an idea.

How real are those particular risks?  I’m not sure –  perhaps the new register will help give us a better sense.  And there are plenty of countries –  other open liberal societies – that place few or no restrictions on such purchases.    But perhaps things are a bit different in a small country?

And then there are the national security dimensions, which seem to be treated too lightly here.  A standard response is “but the local government can always regulate things” .  I don’t think it is typically an adequate response if, say, a hostile foreign power owned key telecoms networks or ports/airports: regulation and governments just aren’t that good, and can also become too responsive to the interests of the overseas investors.    Of course, confronting this issue also involves identifying the minority of countries that count as potential “enemies” and, on the other hand, which are countries where there is (a) a substantial commonality of interest, and (b) where investors can be reasonably assumed to be working in their own interests, not those of their home governments.   At a time when the Soviet Army was just across the border, the West German government would have been crazy to have allowed Soviet interests to have purchased and controlled major West German infrastructure or technology assets.   We’d have been crazy to sell Stewart Island to Soviet interests.

Today’s Soviet Union is China, with the difference that these investment hypotheticals are increasingly real, used as a direct means of extending political reach.   That is nothing about race, and everything about (geo)politics.  I don’t think that taking these issues and threats seriously means banning all, or perhaps even most, Chinese foreign direct investment.  But it means a greater degree of realism, than tends to have pervaded recent governments, that their interests are not our interests, that all or most Chinese corporates are effectively under the thumb of the government and Party, and that not all voluntary transactions are likely to be beneficial for New Zealand as a whole even if they benefit both the buyer and the immediate seller.

There is no particularly strong conclusion to this post.  Drawing appropriate lines –  and translating them into legal rules –  isn’t easy, and that is often a good reason for restraint.  And yet neither is defining, or  fostering and sustaining, nationhood.  But that something is hard isn’t an excuse for simply ignoring the potential issues.  Part of doing that well is perhaps first fostering a compelling and convincing sense that governments are governing in the interests of New Zealanders as a whole.  Of course, different people will see those interests, and the policies that best serve them, differently –  that’s politics. But finding the right answers –  as perhaps around immigration –  is unlikely to proceed best by simply exchanging slogans.

Is there a plausible economic strategy?

In the new government, sworn in this morning, David Parker will take up the renamed role of Minister for Trade and Export Growth.

Early in their term of office, the outgoing government adopted a numerical target for lifting exports (as a share of GDP).  It was, no doubt, well-intentioned, but has provided the basis for quite a few posts here pointing out that no progress was actually being made towards that target, if anything trade shares of GDP were falling, and the pre-election advice from The Treasury was that, all else equal, the trade shares would continue to shrink.  The focus on exports, in turn, seemed to prompt a willingness to use actual or implicit subsidies –  be it in the film industry, export education, irrigation, convention centres, or firms like Rocket Lab –  or unpriced externalities (eg around water) rather than focusing on the fundamentals in a way that might have seen firms themselves increasing taking up new foreign trade oppportunities, responding to improvements in opportunities, markets and incomes.

I stress “foreign trade” rather than just “exports”.   We don’t want policy to be guided by some sort of mercantilist vision in which the purpose of economic life is to sell us much as we can to others, only to store up treasure at home.   Firms export because they can, and because doing so enables owners and employees to earn incomes, which enable them to consume (including from among the abundance the wider world has to offer).  Successful firms invest more heavily too, and many of the investment goods will typically be sourced from abroad.    Trade is good, and generally mutually beneficial.  Ideally, we would see quite a bit more of it: New Zealand firms successfully competing in wider world markets, enabling them and us to purchase more of stuff firms in other countries specialise in producing.    And if New Zealand is ever to catch up again with the rest of the OECD –  whether in productivity or incomes – the process of getting there is likely to involve a materially larger share of local production being exported but –  especially in the transition (which could last decades) –  a lot more investment.  Current account deficits aren’t even problematic when they rest on firm foundations of rising productivity and market-led business investment.  It was the story of 19th century New Zealand (or Australia or the United States).  It was the story of emerging Singapore and South Korea.

So I really hope that the new Minister of Trade and Export Growth (who is also the Minister for Economic Development) sees his role as being at least as much about putting in place the pre-conditions for sustained stronger import growth, as about export growth.  In successful economies, the two go hand in hand.

Here is how we’ve been doing over the 45 years for which we have official data.

trade shares

The last few years’ data are still open for revision, but there is no credible prospect that trade shares of GDP will have been rising.

In interpreting the graph it is worth noting a few things.  The first is that the peaks in the 1985, 2001, and 2009 years simply relate to unexpectedly weak exchange rates.  Most of our imports and exports are priced in foreign currency terms, so when the exchange rate falls sharply there is an immediate translation effects –  both imports and exports rise in NZD terms, even if the volumes haven’t changed at all.   In each of those three cases –  the 1984 devaluation, the slump in the NZD (and AUD) at the end of the dot-com boom, and the sharp fall in the 2008/09 recession –  the exchange rate falls were pretty shortlived.

The second is to note that external trade as a share of GDP was trending up for some time.  The economic policies New Zealand adopted after 1938 had tended to reduce our external trade.  There was a focus on increasing local manufacturing to supply domestic markets in consumer goods (directly reducing imports), and the increased costs of that domestic protectionism undermined the competitiveness of our (actual and potential) export producers (thus, shrinking exports as a share of GDP).

But in the 1970s and early 1980s there were signs of progress, lifting both export and import shares of GDP, even though the terms of trade for New Zealand were pretty dreadful during that period.  There will have been a mix of factors at work: the real exchange rate was trending lower, import protection was being reduced and, less encouragingly, there was a substantial use of export subsidies, both for non-traditional exports and (latterly) support for farmers too.  One argument made at the time for that export support was to counter the adverse competitiveness effects of import protection.  Better, of course, to remove both sets of interventions.  And that is largely what happened over the following decade.    Trade shares of GDP didn’t fall back.

It is perhaps tempting to look at the chart and conclude that taking the last few decades together there is quite a lot of variability in the series, and overall nothing very much has changed since at least the early 1980s.  That’s largely true, but it is also largely the problem.  Successful economies have typically experienced quite material increases in their foreign trade shares (imports and exports) in recent decades.  New Zealand hasn’t.  New Zealand –  or foreign – firms simply haven’t found the profitable opportunities here to take advantage of.    Even services exports are now only around the same share of GDP that they first reached in 1995.   Amazingly (I hadn’t previously looked at this number), services imports as a share of GDP have been lower in the last year than at any time in the past thirty years.

services trade

Not exactly a picture of a successfully internationalising economy.

I don’t find these outcomes –  worrying as they should be, as symptoms of our economic failure –  that surprising.  It is very difficult for firms to compete successfully internationally from such a remote location, based on anything other than location-specific natural resources.  Not impossible, but very difficult.  And so it shouldn’t surprise us that there aren’t many of them.   For whatever reason, in the global economy personal connections on the one hand and integrated value/supply chains on the other have become increasingly important.  The last bus stop before Antarctica –  a long way even from the next to last bus stop – just isn’t a propitious place, no matter how skilled New Zealand workers might be, and how innovative and entrepreneurial New Zealand firms might be.

It is also difficult to successfully compete internationally from here when (a) real interest rates and, in turn, the real cost of capital, for New Zealand investors have averaged so much higher than those in the rest of the advanced world.  Those real interest rate gaps have shown no sign at all of closing  (and they have little or nothing to do with monetary policy).  People push back sometimes arguing that interest rates can’t make that much difference.   They do, through two channels.  First, the standard approach to identifying an appropriate discount rate for project evaluation starts from a risk-free interest rates.  Ours are, and consistently have been, well above those in other advanced countries (something like a 150 basis point margin is a reasonable approximation of the average difference).  And, second, high real interest rates here have been accompanied, causally, by a persistently high real exchange rate, out of line with our deteriorating relative productivity.   In combination, that mix makes investment here harder to justify, and particularly makes investment in the tradables sector harder to justify.  Combine that with the disadvantages of distance and it is no real surprise the foreign trade shares of GDP haven’t increased.  Successful economies have an abundance of new profitable opportunities in which their firms, or foreign firms investing there, take on the world.  It has happened to only a very limited extent here.

But what concerns me is that the new government appears, at this stage, to have no more of a strategy than the outgoing government did for turning around the dismal productivity performance, or the static (or shrinking) foreign trade shares.      There have been encouraging hints of a recognition of the issue: in her speech to the CTU yesterday, the incoming Prime Minister referred both to a need to “boost our productivity”  and to the need to gear the economy more towards “value-added exports”.     But it isn’t clear that they have any real idea of how to get from here to there.   There was nothing any more encouraging in James Shaw’s speech to the same audience.   Or looking through the areas prioritised in the agreements Labour has signed with New Zealand First and the Greens.   If anything, the risk looks to be that the tradables sector will shrink further.

  • The new government plans to adopt measures that will reduce the size of the export education sector.  To the extent that involves a removal of implicit subsidies I think (as I noted yesterday) that is a step in the right direction.
  • The new government plans to phase out government subsidies for irrigation schemes.  From what I’ve seen, that is welcome too.
  • The new government is clearly heading in the direction of reducing exploration for oil and gas in New Zealand and its territorial waters.
  • The new government is clearly intending to take a more aggressive stance around emissions reductions, including moving towards the inclusion of agriculture in the ETS.
  • The new government seems likely to move more aggressively on increasing water quality standards faster,
  • And the new government is planning to increase minimum wages –  already high, by international standards, relative to median wages –  quite considerably over the next few years.
  • The new government is planning (or hoping for) a major acceleration in housebuilding activity.

You might agree or disagree with some or all of those measures individually. But every single one will put the tradables sector under more pressure, to some extent or other.

Take minimum wages for instance.  I recommend you read Eric Crampton’s piece (which I largely agree with).   Here is the Prime Minister’s take.

I know most businesses want a fair set of employment policies.  They know that we need decent wages if they are going to have customers for their products. They know that we need to boost our productivity, and low wages are a barrier to that because they discourage investment in training and capital. They know that we need a government that invests in skills and education.

I simply don’t buy into baseless claims that paying people well means there will be fewer jobs. In fact, the overwhelming weight of evidence is that strong wages for all working people help to boost growth and create jobs.

Wishful thinking at best.  We all, I imagine, want a country in which strong economic performance and strong wage growth goes hand in hand, but there is little or no credible evidence that, at an economywide level, one can get that sort of lift in performance by, say, mandating higher minimum wages.  It is putting the cart before the horse.  And if it worked anywhere, surely New Zealand should be the prime example, given that we already have high minimum wages relative to median wages (a policy maintained and extended by the previous National government).

And here is Shaw

And our whole intent will be to flip climate policy from being seen as a threat and a cost, to being seen as an opportunity and an investment in the future.

And, as I say, that means we’ll be creating tens-of-thousands of new jobs, paying decent wages, for workers and families all over New Zealand.

Not just high-tech city jobs, but out in the regions as well.

Here’s one example: trees.

We are going to plant hundreds of millions of trees to soak up New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions.

These trees, we’re going to plant them in the cities. We’re going to plant them in the towns. We’re going to plant them in in the National Parks. We’re going to plant them in the regions.

That’s going to be tens of thousands of jobs. That means lower unemployment. Lower poverty. Lower crime. Cleaner rivers. More native species.

It would be worth doing even if we weren’t saving the world.

One pictures the seas parting and New Zealanders walking together across the Red Sea to the promised land.

Whatever the merits of mass tree-planting –  which until now firms have not regarded as economic –  it doesn’t exactly seem like a high productivity industry.    And in the short-term (trees take decades to come to maturity) resources that are used planting trees can’t be used for anything else.

Lower unemployment is a worthwhile goal, and I really liked the new PM’s line

we have unemployment stuck stubbornly at 5% when it should be below 4%

but (a) deviations of unemployment from long-term sustainable levels are mostly a matter of monetary policy (so find the right Governor/commitee, and specify the mandate well) and (b) however many trees you plant, higher minimum wages will almost certainly come at some cost –  perhaps not that large –  in higher long-term sustainable unemployment rates.    And for all the complacency there has been in New Zealand about our unemployment rate, when I checked there were already 12 OECD countries with unemployment rates lower than New Zealand.  We simply should be doing better.

Of course, the usual economist’s response when (eg) proposing stripping away subsidies is “the market will provide”.  For example, a lower real exchange rate will allow some firms to expand, and other firms not yet visible to economists to emerge.  But how likely is it that that provides the answer this time?

Of course, the exchange rate has fallen perhaps 3 per cent in the last few weeks since the election (against the AUD, the best guide to idiosnycratic New Zealand effects).  It isn’t a large move, and may not be sustained.  And even at these levels isn’t outside the range it has fluctuated within over recent years.     Between a somewhat more expansionary fiscal policy (than the previous government was running), the aspiration to a big increase in housebuilding, and a continuation of the high target rate of immigration, it is difficult to see why we should expect any near-term material narrowing in the margin between New Zealand interest rates and those in the rest of the world.

Thirty years ago, Grant Spencer –  then Reserve Bank chief economist, now “acting Governor” –  published a book chapter in which he described pre-1984 New Zealand economic management this way

“In particular, the maintenance of high levels of aggregate demand supported a buoyant non-tradables goods sector while exporters faced more depressed market prospects”

When I re-read that chapter last week, it was hauntingly reminiscent of the last few years.  But it isn’t clear why the next few will be any better, unless there is sort of near-term cyclical downturn Winston Peters was warning about last week.  As I’ve highlighted previously, in real per capita terms, the tradable sector of our economy is now no larger than it was 2000 – two whole governments ago.  The risk, at present, is of further shrinkage.

So I do hope that the new Minister of Finance and Minister of Economic Development (and Trade and Export Growth) are turning their minds pretty quickly to how they might achieve the sort of reorientation in the economy that is generally recognised as needed, and which they – and the Prime Minister –  have themselves highlighted as a matter of concern.  (And, hint, regional development funds aren’t likely to be the answer either.   And over the last 15 years, “the regions” have been doing better than “the cities”)

 

(On matters of the new government, I was interested to see Andrew Little, new Minister of Justice, observe – on Twitter and Facebook – yesterday that “As Minister of Justice-designate I want to state from that outset that “pretty legal” is no longer the standard this country operates to!”.     Admirable sentiments, and I have no idea what specifics he had in mind [oh –  Steven Joyce no doubt], but might I suggest that he and the Minister of Finance review how we came to have a pretty clearly unlawful appointment of a Reserve Bank “acting Governor” by the outgoing Minister of Finance. )

The new government’s immigration policy

It was confirmed yesterday that the new government’s immigration policy will be the policy the Labour Party campaigned on (albeit very quietly).  And so we learned that the new government will remain a fully signed-up adherent of the same flawed, increasingly misguided, “big New Zealand” approach that has guided immigration policy for at least the last 25 years.

If that is disappointing, it shouldn’t really be any surprise.     The Green Party approach to immigration is pretty open –  the “globalist” strand in their thought apparently outweighing either concern for New Zealand’s natural environment or any sort of hard-headed analysis of the economic costs and benefits to New Zealanders.  Only a few months ago, they were at one with the New Zealand Initiative, tarring as “xenophobic” any serious debate around the appropriate rate of immigration to New Zealand.  Never mind that population growth is driving up carbon and methane emissions, in a country where marginal abatement costs are larger than in other advanced economies, and yet where the same party is determined that New Zealand should reach net zero emissions only 33 years hence.

As for New Zealand First, they talk a good talk.  But that’s it.   As I noted a few months ago, reading the New Zealand First immigration policy (itself very light on specifics)

If one took this page of policy seriously, one could vote for NZ First safe in the expectation that nothing very much would change at all about the broad direction, or scale, of our immigration policy.     Of course, there would be precedent for that.  The last times New Zealand First was part of a government, nothing happened about immigration either.

Even so, I was just slightly surprised that there wasn’t even a token departure from the Labour Party’s immigration policy that New Zealand First could claim credit for.   The New Zealand Initiative’s report on immigration policy earlier in the year was largely (and explicitly) motivated by concerns about what New Zealand First might mean for immigration policy.

Six months ago, when we started scoping the Initiative’s immigration report, we had a very specific audience in mind: Winston Peters. Our aim was to assemble all the available research and have a fact-based conversation with New Zealand’s most prominent immigration sceptic.

Turns out that, perhaps not surprisingly based on the past track record, that they needn’t have bothered.

And so Labour’s election policy will be the immigration policy of the new government.    The policy documents themselves are here and here.   I wrote about the policy here at the time it was released in June, before the Ardern ascendancy.   It was notable how little attention Labour gave to immigration policy during the campaign –  perhaps it didn’t fit easily with the “relentlessly positive” theme –  and I understand there was a conscious decision by the new leadership to downplay the subject.    It will be interesting to see now whether they follow through on their manifesto, but very little about immigration policy requires legislative change so, in principle, the changes should be able to be done quite quickly.  In fact, as the biggest proposed changes affect international students one would assume they will be wanting to have those measures in places in time for the new academic year.

What also remains quite remarkable is the extent to which Labour’s policy has been taken as a substantial change.  Serious overseas media and intelligent commentators have presented Labour’s proposals as some sort of major sustained change in New Zealand approach to immigration, and thus to expected immigrant numbers.    To read some of the Australian and American commentary you might have supposed, say, that in future New Zealand’s immigration approvals might be cut towards, say, the sorts of levels (per capita) that prevailed in the United States under Bush and Obama.

Labour’s policy is, of course, nothing of the sort.  Under the proposed policy, New Zealand will remain –  by international standards –  extraordinarily open to non-citizen migrants, with expected inflows three times (per capita) those of the United States, and exceeded only (among OECD countries) by Israel in a good year (for them).

What determines how many people from abroad get to settle permanently in New Zealand is the residence approvals programme.   Under that programme, at present the aim is to grant around 45000 approvals to non-citizens each year (Australians aren’t subject to visa requirements, but in most years the net inflow of Australians is very small).  The outgoing government reduced that target (from 47500) last year.   Labour’s immigration policy document does not, even once, mention the residence approvals programme.  That was, no doubt, a conscious choice.  They are quite happy with the baseline rate of non-citizen immigration we’ve had for the last 20 years; quite happy to have the highest planned rate of non-citizen immigration anywhere in the OECD.  Medium-term forecasts of the net non-citizen immigration inflow will not change, one iota, if Labour proceeds with their policy.  For some of course, that will be a desirable feature.  For others it is a serious flaw, that results from failing to come to grips with the damage large scale immigration is doing to the economic fortunes of New Zealanders.

Of course, there are planned policy changes.    There are various small things:

  • an increased refugee quota,
  • steps to increase the utilisation of the existing Pacific quotas,
  • more onerous requirements for investor visas (including requiring investment in new “government-issued infrastructure bonds”),
  • a new Exceptional Skills visa,
  • a KiwiBuild visa

Taken together, these won’t affect total numbers to any material extent.

There is also a (welcome) change under which they will

Remove the Skilled Migrant Category bonus points currently gained by studying or working in New Zealand and standardise the age points to 30 for everyone under 45.

All else equal, these changes won’t affect the number of people getting residence, or materially affect the average quality (skill level) of those getting residence.   That is a shame: at present, too many migrants aren’t that skilled at all, and maintaining such a large approvals target (in such a remote, not very prosperous, country) makes it hard to lift the average quality.

The bigger changes are under two headings.    The first is around temporary work visas.   Here is what they say they will do.

Labour will:

• Actively manage the essential skills in demand lists with a view to reducing the number of occupations included on those lists

• Develop regional skill shortage lists in consultation with regional councils and issue visas that require the visa holder to live and work within a region that is relevant to their identified skill

• For jobs outside of skills shortages lists, Labour will ensure visas are only issued when a genuine effort has been made to find Kiwi workers

• Strengthen the labour market test for Essential Skills Work Visas to require employers to have offered rates of pay and working conditions that are at least the market rate

• Require industries with occupations on the Essential Skills in Demand lists to have a plan for training people to have the skills they require developed together with Industry Training Organisations

• Review the accredited employers system to make sure it is operating properly.

The broad direction seems sensible enough –  after all, the rhetoric has been about lifting the average skill level of the people we take.   But as I noted in my comments in June, the policy is notable for its touching faith in the ability of bureaucrats to get things right, juggling and managing skills lists, and now extending that to a regional differentiation.   There is no suggestion, for example, of letting markets work, whether by (as I’ve proposed) imposing a flat (quite high) fee for work visas and then letting the market work out which jobs need temporary immigrant labour, or by requiring evidence that market wages for the skill concerned have already risen quite a lot.  The latter would have seemed an obvious consideration for a party with trade union affiliates.

On Labour’s own estimates, these changes won’t have a large effect on the number of people here on work visas at any one time, although in the year or so after any changes are implemented, the net inflows that year will be lower than they otherwise would have been.

Much the same goes for the biggest area of change Labour is proposing, around international students.

Labour will:

• Continue to issue student visas and associated work rights to international students studying at Level 7 or higher – usually university levels and higher

• Stop issuing student visas for courses below a bachelor’s degree which are not independently assessed by the TEC and NZQA to be of high quality

• Limit the ability to work while studying to international students studying at Bachelor-level or higher. For those below that level, their course will have to have the ability to work approved as part of the course

• Limit the “Post Study Work Visa – Open” after graduating from a course of study in New Zealand to those who have studied at Bachelor-level or higher.

In general, I think these are changes in the right direction.  Here were some of the comments I made earlier

I’m a little uneasy about the line drawn between bachelor’s degree and other lines of study.  It seems to prioritise more academic courses of study over more vocational ones, and while the former will often require a higher level of skill, the potential for the system to be gamed, and for smart tertiary operators to further degrade some of the quality of their (very numerous) bachelor’s degree offerings can’t be ignored.  …… I’d probably have been happier if the right to work while studying had been withdrawn, or more tightly limited, for all courses.   And if open post-study work visas had been restricted to those completing post-graduate qualifications.

The proposals are some mix of protecting foreign students themselves, protecting the reputation of the better bits of our export education industry, and changes in the temporary work visas rules themselves.     In Labour’s telling –  and it seems a plausible story –  the changes are not designed to produce a particular numerical outcome, but to realign the rules in ways that better balance various interests.  The numbers will adjust of course, but that isn’t the primary goal.

Labour estimates that these changes will lower the number of visas granted annually by around 20000.   That is presented, in their documents, as a reduction in annual net migration of around that amount.   But that is true only in a transition, immediately after the changes are introduced.  The stock of people here on such student and related visas will fall, but after the initial transitional period there will be little or no expected change in the net inflow over time (which is as one would expect, since the residence approvals target is the key consideration there).

To see this consider a scenario in which 100000 new short-term visas are issued each year, and all those people stay for a year and a day (just long enough to get into the PLT numbers).  In a typical year, there will then be 100000 new arrivals and 100000 departures.

Now change the rules so that in future only 75000 short-term visas are issued each year.  In the first year, there will be 75000 arrivals and (still) 100000 departures (people whose visas were issued under the old rules and who were already here).  But in the next year, there will be 75000 arrivals and 75000 departures.    Measured net PLT migration will have been 25000 lower than otherwise in the first year, but is not different than otherwise in the years beyond that.

That doesn’t mean the policy changes have no effect.  They will lower the stock of short-term non-citizens working and studying in New Zealand.    They will ease, a little, demand for housing.  In some specific sectors, with lots of short-term immigrant labour, they may ease downward pressures on wages (although in general, immigrants add more to demand than to supply, and that applies to students too).   But it won’t change the expected medium-term migration inflow.

Oh, and the student visa changes will, all else equal, reduce exports

Selling education to foreign students is an export industry, and tighter rules will (on Labour’s own numbers) mean a reduction in the total sales of that industry.   Does that bother me?  No, not really.  When you subsidise an activity you tend to get more of it.  We saw that with subsidies to manufacturing exporters in the 1970s and 80s, and with subsidies to farmers at around the same time.  We see it with film subsidies today.  Export incentives simply distort the economy, and leave us with lower levels of productivity, and wealth/income, than we would otherwise have.   In export education, we haven’t been giving out government cash with the export sales, but the work rights (during study and post-study) and the preferential access to points in applying for residence are subsidies nonetheless.  If the industry can stand on its own feet, with good quality educational offerings pitched at a price the market can stand, then good luck to it.  If not, we shouldn’t be wanting it here any more than we want car assembly plants or TV manufacturing operations here.

I participated in a panel discussion on Radio New Zealand this morning on Labour’s proposed changes.  In that discussion I was surprised to hear Eric Crampton suggest that the changes would put material additional pressure on the finances of universities.    Perhaps, although (a) the changes are explicitly aimed at sub-degree level courses, and (b) to the extent that universities are getting students partly because of the residence points that have been on offer, it is just another form of “corporate welfare” or subsidy that one would typically expect the New Zealand Initiative to oppose.      Whether hidden or explicit, industry subsidies aren’t a desirable feature of economic policy.

Standing back, Labour’s proposal look as though they might make a big difference in only a small number of sectors, notably the lower end of the export education market.  If implemented, they will be likely to temporarily demand housing demand –  perhaps reinforcing the current weakness in the Auckland housing market, along with some of their other proposed legislation (eg the extension of the brightline test and the “healthy homes” bill).   But they aren’t any sort of solution to the house price problem either: after the single year adjustment, population growth projections will be as strong as ever, and in the face of those pressures only fixing the urban land market will solve that problem. Time will tell what Labour’s policy proposals in that area, which have sounded promising, will come to.

Two final thoughts.  One wonders if whatever heat there has been in the immigration issue –  and it didn’t figure hugely in the election –  will fade if the headline numbers start to turn down again anyway.   The net flow  of New Zealanders to Australia has not yet shown signs of picking up –  but it will resume as the Australian labour market recovers.  But in the latest numbers, there has been some sign of a downturn in the net inflow of non-citizens.

PLT non citizen

There is a long way to go to get back to the 11250 a quarter that is roughly consistent with the 45000 residence approvals planned for each year.  But, if sustained, this correction would provide at least some temporary relief on the housing and transport fronts.  As above, Labour’s changes will have a one-off effect on further reducing this net inflow in the next 12 or 18 months, but nothing material beyond that.

And in case this post is seen by the new Minister of Immigration, or that person’s advisers, could I make a case for two things:

  • first, better and more accessible data.  The readily useable migration approvals is published only once a year, with a lag even then of four or five months.  The latest Migration Trends and Outlook was released in November 2016, covering the year to June 2016.  It is inexcusably poor that we do not have this data readily, and easily useable, available monthly, within a few days of the end of the relevant month, and included (for example) as part of Statistics New Zealand’s Infoshare platform.  The monthly PLT data are useful for some things, but if you want a good quality discussion and debate around immigration policy, make the immigration approvals data more easily available.    As a comparison, building permits data is quickly and easily available, reported by SNZ.  Why not migration approvals?
  • second, considering referring the issue of the economics of New Zealand immigration to the Productivity Commission for an inquiry.   Perhaps the current policy, as Labour proposes to amend it, has all the net gains the advocates say it does.  If so, the Productivity Commission could helpfully, and in a non-partisan way, demonstrate that.  But there are still serious issues around New Zealand’s unusually liberal immigration policy, in a country so remote and with such a poor track record in increasing its international trade share.  Whatever the economic merits of immigration in some places, it is by no means sure that large scale immigration here is doing anything to improve the fortunes of most New Zealanders.  It may, in fact, be holding us back, being one part of the story as to why we’ve failed to make any progress in closing the productivity gaps with other advanced economies.  It would seem an obvious topic for the Productivity Commission, and a good way of lifting the quality of the policy debate around this really substantial policy intervention.