Exports in a cross-country perspective

Across the advanced world, exports have been becoming a larger share of most countries’ GDP.  This chart shows the median export share for OECD countries going back to 1971.

export % of GDP OECD

The OECD only has complete data for all its member countries since 1995, but in that time total exports as a share of total OECD GDP have risen from 19.5 per cent to 28.3 per cent.

There is some short-term variability –  I’m not sure what explains the 2016 dip –  but the trend has been pretty strongly upwards.  That’s encouraging: trade (imports and exports, domestic and foreign) is a key element of prosperity.

For quite a while, New Zealand’s performance was very similar to that of the median OECD country

export %

and then it wasn’t.    The last time New Zealand’s export share matched that of the average OECD country was around 2000/01, when our exchange rate was temporarily very low (and commodity prices were quite high).   At very least, we’ve been diverging for 15 years now, although it looks to me that the divergence really dates back at least 20 years to the early-mid 1990s.

Once upon a time –  well before these charts –  New Zealand traded internationally much more than most other countries.   With a high share of exports in GDP, and a high GDP per capita, a common line you find in older books was that New Zealand had among the very highest per capita exports of any country.    These days, not only is GDP per capita below the OECD median, but so is our export share of GDP.

Small countries typically have a larger share of exports in their GDP than large countries.  That isn’t a mark of success for the small country, just a reflection of the fact that in a small country there are fewer trading partners.  If your firm has a great world-beating product and yet is based in the US quite a large proportion of your sales will naturally be at home.  If your firm is based in Iceland or Luxembourg, almost all your sales will be recorded as exports.  US exports as a share of GDP are about 12 per cent at present, but divide the country into two separate countries and even if nothing else changes the exports/GDP shares of both new countries will be higher than those of the United States.   The median small OECD country currently has gross exports of around 55 per cent of GDP  (New Zealand 26 per cent).

On the other hand, we also expect to see countries that are far away do less international trade than countries that are close to other countries (especially countries at similar stages of economic development).   That isn’t just a statistical issue, an artefact of where national boundaries are drawn.  Distance is costly –  there are fewer economic opportunities for trade.     That has become over more apparent in recent decades as cross-border production processes have become much more important: in the course of producing a complex product, component parts at different stages of assembly may cross international borders (and be recorded as exports) several times.   This has been a particular important possibility in Europe, and has been part of the success of formerly-Communist countries like Slovakia.    Distance is an enormous disadvantage –  enormous distance (such as New Zealand suffers) even more so.

The OECD is now producing data on the share of domestic value-added in a country’s exports.  The data only go back to 1995, and are only available with quite a lag (the latest are for 2014) but you can see the difference between New Zealand’s experience and that of the median OECD country.


These opportunities (gains from trade that weren’t economically posssible a few generations ago) generally aren’t available to New Zealand based firms.  Then again, a widening in this particular gap isn’t the explanation for the divergence between New Zealand’s export performance over the last decade and that of the median OECD country (since the gap hasn’t widened further).

New Zealand has just been doing poorly.

Here is one comparison I found interesting.

nz vs fr

France has more than ten times the population of New Zealand and yet its foreign trade share now exceeds that of New Zealand.    The United Kingdom –  similar population to France –  also now has a higher trade share than New Zealand.   And the difference isn’t just down to components shuffling back and forth across frontiers in the course of manufacturing (eg) Airbus planes.  New Zealand’s exports have a larger domestic value-added share than those of the UK or France, but adjust for that and all three countries now have export value-added shares of GDP of around 21 per cent.  In a successful small country you would expect –  and would typically find –  a much higher percentage.

Remoteness looks like an enormous disadvantage for New Zealand, at least for selling anything much other than natural resource based products  (even our tourism numbers aren’t that impressive by international standards).   Here is the comparison with another small remote country, Israel  (it is both some distance from other advanced country markets, and made more remote by the political barriers of its location/neighbours).

nz vs israel

The Israel series is more volatile than New Zealand’s –  probably partly reflecting the extreme macroeconomic instability in the Israel earlier in the period –  but the overall picture is depressingly similar (and that in a country where R&D spending is now around 4 per cent of GDP).    The other similarity with New Zealand: very rapid immigration-driven population growth, into an economically difficult location.  As I’ve illustrated in previous posts, Israel has struggled to achieve much productivity growth and has a similarly low level of real GDP per capita.

Looking back over the last few decades, it is sobering to note that natural-resource dependent advanced economies are foremost among those that have struggled to achieve higher international trade shares of GDP.    It isn’t some sort of fixed rule: if, like Australia, vast new deposits of minerals become economically exploitable, a remote natural resource dependent economy can see its export share of GDP rise.  And if you have enough natural resources and few enough people, you can be very well-off indeed, even if the export share of GDP isn’t rising (Norway is the only OECD country where exports have’t risen at all as a share of GDP since 1971).  But if you are very dependent on natural resource exports –  and that dependence doesn’t seem to be changing –  then you’d probably want to be very cautious about actively using policy to drive up the population unless –  as with Australia –  there are new waves of nature’s bounty to share around.

New Zealand –  apparently structurally unable to secure rapid growth in exports based on anything other than natural resource –  looks not only like the last place on earth, but the last place in the advanced world to which it would make sense to actively set out to locate ever more people.  And yet is exactly what one government after enough does, apparently blind to paucity of economic opportunities here.    They might wish it was different, and perhaps one day it even will be, but for now there is just no evidence to support their strategies.  Every year, in following that course, governments make it harder for New Zealanders as a whole to prosper.

Oh, and what changed in the last 20 years or so –  to go back to that second chart?  After 20 years of quite low levels of immigration, active pursuit of large non-citizen immigration targets became a centrepiece of policy again.   Without great economic opportunities here –  already or created by the migrants –  that renewed population pressures just made it even harder, despite all the good work on economic reform in the previous decade –  for outward-oriented firms to succeed, and made the prospects of ever closing the income and productivity gaps to the rest of the OECD more remote than ever.