Looking for a successful outward-oriented economic strategy 

I could bore you with thoughts on (a) Supreme Court rulings on the duties of trustees to disclose material to members/beneficiaries, or (b) even more recondite rulings on severability (the conditions under which, having inserted an invalid and unenforceable provision into a deed, the discovery of that invalid provision invalidates (or not) the rest of the deed).  Doing so might help straighten out my thinking for a meeting this afternoon, but it would bore you witless.

Instead, I’ll just leave with a link to a piece I wrote that appeared on the New Zealand Centre for Political Research website over the weekend.

A month or so ago, on the day the new government was to be sworn in, I wrote a post here about the apparent tension between the government’s stated ambition to increase the outward-orientation of the New Zealand economy (including the appointment of a Minister for Export Growth) and various specific policies the new government seeemed committed to, which seemed likely to reduce exports as a share of GDP (all else equal).  In some cases, those policies represented overdue elimination of explicit or (more often) implicit subsidies.  In other cases, no doubt some sort of case could be made for each of the policies on their own merits.  Nonetheless, taken together they looked likely to continue to shrink the foreign trade share of the New Zealand economy (the actual outcome under the previous government, despite the regularly restated goal to substantially increase exports as a share of GDP.

In that earlier post, I included this chart, of exports and imports as a share of GDP, back to 1971/72.

trade shares

There are some data revisions due out later this week.  It would be very surprising if they changed the broad picture.  Foreign trade has been becoming less important as a share of New Zealand’s economy, even though every successful case of economic transformation I’m aware of has involved getting the preconditions right that result in more domestic firms successfully taking on the world market.

There are some unavoidable factors that explain a temporary diversion of resources towards the domestic economy: the repair and rebuild process after the Cantervury earthquakes being the most obvious. But the peak of that process has passed, and yet Treasury’s advice in the PREFU was that the downward trend (in exports/GDP) would continue.  The problems look structural.

A few days after that earlier post I was mildly encouraged to see references in the Speech from the Throne to the need to lift productivity in New Zealand.  Exports were highlighted in this paragraph

This means working smarter, with new technologies, reducing the export of raw commodities and adding more value in New Zealand. For example, by securing the supply for forestry processing, greater investment in fishing and aquaculture, increasing skills and training, and more research and development to add value to dairy and other products and to create new technologies.

I couldn’t track down old Speeches from the Throne, but it did strike me as the sort of stuff almost any government could have (and probably did) say for at least the last 50 years.   The previous government, for example, claimed to be keen on aquaculture, and removing regulatory roadblocks to it.  Forest processing as a big theme in the 1950s when the government led the formation of Tasman Pulp and Paper (and my old hometown of Kawerau).  And so on.

And yet, as the old line has it, if one does the same stuff over and over again, why would one expect a different result?  We’ve been drifting behind the rest of the advanced world –  and have had no productivity growth at all in the last five years –  and foreign trade as a share of GDP hasn’t been sustainably increased for 25 years now.

Muriel Newman, former ACT MP, at NZ CPR saw that earlier post and asked if I’d like to do something shorter, and a bit more policy-focused for their newsletter.    The result is here.

I noted that there are lots of things that could be dealt with to lift our economic performance

I hope that the new ministers are going to turn their minds pretty quickly to how they might achieve the sort of reorientation in the economy that their own campaign recognised is needed. Regional development funds aren’t likely to be the answer; in fact, over the last 15 years, “the regions” have generally done better than “the cities”.   Auckland has been the laggard (again in per capita terms).

There are plenty of things that could be done to lift the competitiveness of the New Zealand economy.  For example, we now have a company tax rate that is above that of the median OECD country.   Lower taxes on the returns to business investment are one of best ways of getting more such investment.   We also already have one of the highest minimum wages rate, relative to median incomes, of any OECD countries.  Reforming our land use and planning laws could markedly lower the cost of housing, and help ensure that people and businesses can locate in the best locations.

In response, Muriel Newman asked a bunch of other regulatory issues.  I noted that I agreed that there was plenty of room for improvement on many fronts

But it is worth remembering that things on the regulatory front are typically not worse here than in most other advanced countries (indeed, we often score a little better than average on summary measures).   There is a lot we could do to remove roadblocks in these areas, but if we are to understand why NZ has continued to do badly relative to other advanced countries, i think we need to focus on things that are different here than abroad.  As per the column, our company tax rate is now high, and our minimum wage is high (both relative to other OECD countries).  But we are also very remote, in an era when personal connections seem to matter more than ever, and we have an immigration policy that is very unusual by international standards.  Of other OECD countries, only Australia and Canada come close to our target inflow (and Israel will take any Jewis person who wants to come –  that is a different issue).

And to revert to the concluding paragraphs of the NZCPR article

Defenders of our very high target rate of immigration talk constantly about skill shortages.  But OECD data show that New Zealand workers are already among the most skilled around.  We don’t need more workers – skilled or otherwise.  In fact, because of how difficult it is to base internationally competitive businesses here, there is an almost irreconcilable tension between continuing to drive the population up, wanting to deal with the pressing environmental issues associated with natural resource exports, and still wanting First World living standards.  The best way to square the circle would be to cut back sharply on the target rates of non-citizen immigration.

There isn’t anything necessarily wrong, in principle, with a growing population.  But successive governments have been putting the cart before the horse – driving the population up in the idle hope that a bigger population might somehow spark higher productivity growth.  In a location that isn’t a natural home to lots of people, that was never very likely.  Instead, we need to focus instead on the able people we already have – and to heed the wisdom of the New Zealanders who’ve been leaving.   Without a change of course, we seem set to slowly drift ever further behind other advanced countries, increasingly unable to offer our people the world-leading living standards we once delivered and could, with the right policies, once again aspire to.

It is a shame that the new government shows no interest in tackling our anomalous, and deeply unfit-for–this-location, immigration policy (indeed, there are now reports they are in no hurry even to fix the manifest problems around student visas and associated work rights).  Unless they do so –  and in the process achieve a substantial sustained reduction in the real exchange rate –  it is very difficult to see a path through which the Minister for Export Growth will get to the end of his term and be able to point to a sustainable turnaround in performance, and a trajectory for exports (and imports) as a share of GDP that might offer some hope of New Zealand one day catching up with the rest of the advanced world again.