Shameless and shameful

On Monday, just across the road from Parliament, Victoria University’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies hosted a lunchtime lecture from Professor Anne-Marie Brady.  The lecture was built around her Magic Weapons paper on the extent of Chinese government/Party influence activities in New Zealand (and elsewhere), and her shorter policy brief with some specific proposals for the new government on how to deal with the issue (I wrote about that latter piece recently here).     (Radio New Zealand also had a good interview with Brady this morning, prompted by the new legislation announced yesterday by the Australian government, as part of its efforts to deal with this official Chinese interference.)

New Zealanders owe Professor Brady a considerable debt of gratitude for, first, writing her detailed paper, and secondly for deciding to put it in the public domain (it was done as part of an international project on Chinese influence-seeking activities globally, and the papers by other scholars have not yet been made public).    Her paper has found a receptive audience internationally (and she mentioned that Francis Fukayama has underway work for a similar paper on Chinese influence-seeking in the US).

Listening to her, one gets the sense that she isn’t that comfortable in the public spotlight.  Many academics aren’t.   In her lecture the other day she felt the need to include a photo of her Chinese husband and her three half-Chinese children –  no doubt a push back against the sort of despicable pre-election attempt to discredit her and her research tried by the then Attorney-General.  It can be a lonely position for an academic when her expert and well-documented research runs head-on into a wall of political indifference (or worse), vested interests, and a media which seems not quite sure whether or not this is a “proper” issue even to be talking about.    It is not as if (I’m aware that ) anyone has seriously sought to question the factual basis of her paper, or has demonstrated major flaws in her analysis and reasoning.   It seems as if there is just a desperate desire that she, and the issue, would go away.    Absent that, the political and business elites simply want to pretend it doesn’t exist.   I hope she doesn’t just retreat to her study.

Her Victoria lecture the other day covered pretty familiar ground (although many of the attendees indicated that they hadn’t read either of her papers so much will have been new for them).     There was:

  • the active efforts (largely successful) of the Communist Party to get effective control of almost all Chinese language media in New Zealand (similar story in Australia) –  and thus the story of the issues she is raising goes unreported in that media,
  • the efforts of suborn former senior politicians, with roles that align their personal economic interests with those of the Chinese authorites,
  • concerns about political donations, especially from individuals/entities with close ties to the CCP, and the associated close ties between political party leaders and China,
  • Chinese government interests in influencing New Zealand, both to stay quiet on issues of concern to China, and to detach New Zealand from its historical defence and intelligence relationships,
  • China’s interests in Antartica,
  • Confucius Institutes, funded and controlled by China, as part of New Zealand universities, complete with restrictions on what can be talked about,
  • efforts to promote ethnic Chinese New Zealand citizens, with those ties to the Embassy/CCP, into electoral politics –  in New Zealand’s case, both Jian Yang and Raymond Huo.

Huo is now chair of Parliament’s Justice Committee – the same Huo who, as she pointed out, is responsible for Labour campaigning for the Chinese vote under a Xi Jinping slogan, and who – Professor Brady reports –  was present at a meeting in Auckland earlier this year in which Communist Party propaganda chiefs (“propaganda” is apparently a literal translation of the role/office) met with local Chinese language media to offer “guidance” on how issues of interest to China should be reported.   A serving member of New Zealand’s Parliament…….

Brady noted that the Communist Party’s United Front work has always been an integral element in how the Party works, but that the efforts are now being undertaken with an intensity and importance that is greater than at any time since 1949, when the CCP took power.  It is a China that has thrown off Deng Xiaoping’s injunction (post Tiananmen) that China should mask its growing power and bide its time.

When it came to the New Zealand government, in some respects I thought Professor Brady pulled her punches (although she was happy to note that she couldn’t understand how it was that National Party MP Jian Yang – self-confessed Communist Party member, former member of the Chinese intelligence services, and someone who has acknowledged misrepresenting his past on residency/citizenship application papers –  is still in Parliament).   I’m not sure how much of that is tactical –  giving the new government a chance, hoping to be heard by talking constructively.   I fear that any such hope is misplaced.

In just the last week we’ve had a couple of episodes that confirm that the new government is quite as craven –  indifferent, obsequious –  as its predecessor.

A month or two ago, at the time of the 19th Communist Party Congress, it came to light through the Chinese media that the presidents of both the National and Labour parties had been sending warm greetings and congratulations.   This last weekend, the Labour Party went one step worse.

The Chinese Communist Party held a congress in Beijing for representatives of such political parties from around the world (300 from 120 countries) as it could gather to its embrace.    Most of them were from developing countries.  Nigel Haworth, the President of the New Zealand Labour Party, attended.   Here is how one Chinese media outlet reported the event.

The CPC in Dialogue with World Political Parties High Level Meeting was the first major multilateral diplomacy event hosted by China after the recently concluded 19th CPC National Congress.

It was also the first time the CPC held a high-level meeting with such a wide range of political parties from around the world…..

During the closing ceremony, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi stressed that the meeting was a complete success with a broad consensus reached. He also said CPC leaders elaborated on the new guiding theory introduced by the 19th CPC National Congress.

“The innovative theoretical and practical outcomes of the 19th CPC National Congress not only have milestone significance for the development of China, but also provide good examples for the development of other countries, especially developing countries,” Yang said.

The Beijing Initiative issued after the meeting states that over the past five years, China has achieved historic transformations and the country is making new and greater contributions to the world.

It also highlighted that lasting peace, universal security, and common prosperity have increasingly become the aspiration of people worldwide, and it’s the unshakable responsibility and mission of political parties to steer the world in this direction.

“The most important thing between the 18th and 19th CPC party congress was the belt and road initiative,” according to the Russian Communist Party’s Dmitry Novikov. “And the most important thing about the initiative is the economic cooperation among various countries. Such cooperation leads to the promotion of relations in culture and politics.”

And the President of the New Zealand Labour Party was party to all of this.    In fact, not just a party to it, but someone who was willing to come out openly in praise of Xi Jinping.

Here he is, talking of Xi Jinping’s opening speech  (here and here)

“I think it is a very good speech. I think it is a very challenging speech. I think he is taking a very brave step, trying to lead the world and to think about the global challenges in a cooperative manner.  Historically we have wars and we have crisis, but he is posing a possibility of a different way of moving forward, a way based on collaboration and cooperation.  Making cooperation work is difficult, but he think that’s a better way for mankind. I think we all share that view.”

It is shameful.     Probably not even Peter Goodfellow would have gone quite that far –  if only because there might have been some (understandable) rebellion in the ranks if he had gone that public.

This is the same Chinese Communist Party (and associated state) that

  • flouts international law, including with its aggressive expansionism in the South China Sea,
  • denies any political rights to its own people,
  • that is directly responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people (and which only just pulled back from its forced abortions practices),
  • lets dissidents die in prison,
  • has no concept of the rule of law,
  • persecutes religious believers (Christian, Muslim, Falun Gong or whatever),
  • actively interferes in the domestic politics of other countries in all manner of different ways,
  • and so on.

In her lecture the other day, Professor Brady mentioned Haworth’s comments, but this was one of the places she pulled her punches.  She asked, rhetorically, if we could imagine a New Zealand political party president attending a Republican Party convention and making such public remarks.   Or even a Russian political event.    At one level it is a fair point –  Haworth’s participation in this CCP event, and his positive comments, have gone totally unremarked in the New Zealand media (or from Opposition parties), in a way that would be simply inconceivable in those other cases.    But at another, it falls into the trap beloved of China-sympathisers and people on the left (one such academic at her lecture attempted this), of drawing a moral equivalence between, say, the United States and the UK on the one hand, and Communist China on the other.    A much better comparison would be to ask if we could imagine a major New Zealand political party President attending Nazi Party congresses pre-war or Soviet Communist party congresses?  And whether, even if it had happened, we would look back now with equanimity at associating so strongly with such an evil.  Such is the CCP.   The fact that certain New Zealand firms make a lot of money trading with them –  or that our political parties appear to raise large donations –  doesn’t change that character.

Former National Party Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, was apparently also at the meeting, speaking warmly of China’s One Belt One Road initiative (all about geopolitical influence).

Yesterday, we had yet more proof of how far gone the New Zealand authorities (and the new New Zealand government are).     As I’d noted a couple of weeks ago, Victoria University (specifically its China-funded and controlled Confucius Institute) and the New Zealand Institute for International Affairs put on a half day symposium (celebration?) of 45 years of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China PRC).   Not a word of scepticism or criticism was to be expected from the programme –  there wasn’t for example an opportunity for Professor Brady to present her work, and alternative perspectives on it to be heard.

Quite late in the piece, reportedly, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs agreed to be a keynote speaker at this forum, his first major speech as Minister.  Winston Peters had, in Opposition, occasionally been heard to express some unease about the activities of the PRC in New Zealand, including the questions around National Party MP Jian Yang (recall that even Charles Finny, former senior diplomat, noted that he is always very careful about what he says in front on Yang and Raymond Huo, given their closeness to the PRC Embassy).   In office, the Rt Hon Winston Peters not just tows the MFAT line, repeating the same obsequious words as former National Party ministers, he takes it up another step.

There was the published text, which was bad enough.   In entire speech he could only manage this, that might be pointed to for a modicum of self-respect.

New Zealand supports a stable, rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific region in which free trade and connectivity can thrive.  We urge parties to resolve disputes in accordance with international law, on the basis of diplomacy and dialogue.

New Zealand and China do not always see eye to eye on every issue; we are different countries and New Zealanders are proudly independent.  However,  China and New Zealand have a close, constructive and increasingly mature relationship.  Where we do have different perspectives, we raise these with each other in ways that are cordial, constructive and clear.

“New Zealanders” might be proudly independent, but it isn’t clear that our governments are.  At a New Zealand event –  so it wasn’t even a matter of talking politely in China itself –  our Foreign Minister can’t bring himself to name any specific concerns or risks (despite rising international unease, and the material documented by Professor Brady).   And if he ever has concerns he’ll raise them in “cordial” way………”cordial” and direct interference by a foreign power in New Zealand, undermining the freedoms of hundreds of thousands of our own people (ethnic Chinese) doesn’t strike me as the sort of words that naturally belong together.  At least in a country whose government retains any self-respect.

But then it got worse, at least according to the Stuff report of how Peters departed from his written text.

“We should also remember this when we are making judgements about China – about freedom and their laws: that when you have hundreds of millions of people to be re-employed and relocated with the change of your economic structure, you have some massive, huge problems.

“Sometimes the West and commentators in the West should have a little more regard to that and the economic outcome for those people, rather than constantly harping on about the romance of ‘freedom’, or as famous singer Janis Joplin once sang in her song: ‘freedom is just another word for nothing else to lose’.

“In some ways the Chinese have a lot to teach us about uplifting everyone’s economic futures in their plans.”

It is so remarkably reminiscent of the Western fellow travellers of the Soviet Union in decades past –  tens of millions might die, but not to worry, a new Jerusalem is on the way to being built.   Basic rights and freedoms might be trampled on, or simply not exist at all, but not to worry….what is freedom after all?

Personally, I don’t think the biggest issue in the China/New Zealand official relationship should be how the Chinese party/state treats its own people –  abominable as that is.  The issues people like Professor Brady are raising are about the direct, systematic, in-depth, interference by another country  –  a hostile power, run by a regime with mostly alien values –  in the domestic affairs of other countries.  Our own most of all.  International expansionism and defiance of the rule of international law might matter too.  And none of that has any connection whatever to improvements in material living standards in China.

And what to make of the nonsense claim that “the Chinese have a lot to teach us about uplifting everyone’s economic future in their plans”.  That is about as ignorant as it is offensive.

I’ve shown this chart before

Here is a chart showing GDP per capita for China, and a range of now-advanced Asian countries/economies.  I’ve shown each country’s GDP per capita as a percentage of that for the United States for each of 1913, 1950, and 2014, using the Maddison database for the 1913 observation and the Conference Board (which built on Maddison’s work) for the more recent observations.  Data are a bit patchy in those earlier decades, but 1913 was before China descended into civil  and external wars (from the late 1920s), and 1950 was the year after the Communist Party took control of the mainland.

asia gdp pc cf US

What stands out is just how badly communist-ruled China has done economically, and especially relative to the three other ethnic-Chinese countries/territories.  Substantial re-convergence has happened in all the other countries on the chart, but that in China has been excruciatingly slow.  A few buoyant decades (the aftermath of which we have still to see) struggle to make up for the earlier decades of even worse Communist mis-rule.

Or how about this one, using Conference Board data for real GDP per person employed (they don’t have real GDP per hour worked for China, but estimates are very low)?

china GDP ppe

Even on official Chinese data, the record is pretty poor: China barely matches Sri Lanka which was torn apart by decades of civil war, and doesn’t even begin to match the performance of the better east Asian economies (none of which has anything like the waste, the massive distortions, of China).   Surely China is best seen as a (potential) wealth-destruction story?  Taiwan’s numbers might be a reasonable benchmark for what could have been.  Taiwan threatens no one.

Just to cap an egregious speech, the Opposition foreign affairs spokesman indicated that he didn’t disagree with what Winston Peters had had to say  (well, after his government’s track record of cravenness, he would, wouldn’t he).

I came home from Anne-Marie Brady’s lecture the other day and pulled off the bookshelf my copy of The Appeasers, written in the 1960s by Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott, a heavily-documented account of British appeasement of Germany from 1933 onwards.    As I started reading, lots seemed to ring true to today.

Two situations are never fully alike.  For a start, New Zealand isn’t a “great power” and China is (as Germany was becoming again).    And Germany had little real interest in interfering in domestic British politics –  and there was no large German diaspora in the UK to attempt to corral and control.    But there is a lot of the same willed blindness to the evil that the regime represented.    In the 1930s, it wasn’t the bureaucrats who were the problem –  from the very first, British Ambassadors in Berlin recognised and reported on the nature of the regime, its domestic abuses and its external threats.     There were various forces at work it seemed –  a fear of Communism (and thus Nazism as perhaps some sort of bulwark against something even worse), unease and even guilt over some of the Treaty of Versailles provisions, the fear of new conflict (only 15 years after the last war), and often some sort of admiration for the order the new German government was bringing to things (and some philo-Germanism among many of the British upper classes).  As Gilbert and Gott summarise it

“Like alcohol, pro-Germanism dulled the senses of those who over-indulged, and many English diplomats, politicians and men of influence insisted upon interpreting German developments in such a way as to suggest patterns of cooperation that did not exist.”

Britain and France could (and should) have stopped Germany earlier.  New Zealand can’t stop China, of course, but we can assert ourselves, and reassert some self-respect, for our system, our freedoms, and for the interests of like-minded countries.    We can call out, firmly (not cordially) Chinese influence-seeking etc where we see it –  as the Australian government has been much more willing to do.  We can cease to pander to such an obnoxious regime that not only abuses its own people (including failing to deliver economically) but represents a threat to its neighbours, and which persists in seeking to interfere directly in other countries, whether in its neighbourhood or not, whether with large ethnic Chinese minorities (as NZ, Australia, and Canada) or not.  Our politicians shame us by their deference to such an evil power –  and frankly, one that has little real ability to harm us (as distinct from harming a few vested interests).

In her lecture the other day, and in her policy brief, Anne-Marie Brady called for our political leaders to insist that none of their MPs will have anything further to do with entities involved in the PRC United Front efforts.   That would certainly be a start –  though the Jian Yang stain on our democracy really needs to be removed altogether –  but it is probably a rather small part of the issue: we need political leaders who will recognise  –  and openly acknowledge –  the nature of the regime, and stop fooling themselves (and attempting to fool us) about the nature of the regime they defend, and consort with.   Perhaps our leaders are no worse than, say, British Cabinet ministers in the 1930s who enjoyed hunting with Hermann Goering, but if that is the standard they are comfortable with, New Zealand is in an even worse place than I’d supposed.   In their book, Gilbert and Gott quote from the former head of the British foreign service:

“Looking back to the pre-1939 era Vansittart wrote: “I frequently said that those who ask to be deceived must not grumble if they are gratified”

Indeed.

I said that I thought Professor Brady was inclined to pull her punches a bit.  Asked what New Zealand can do,  she began her response claiming that “Australia can be more forceful”.   No doubt Australia is, and will remain, more forceful –  we’ve seen in the DFAT Secretary’s speech, in the ASIO report, in the foreign affairs White Paper, and in the new legislation details of which were announced yesterday.  But “can” isn’t the operative word.   If trade is your concern, Australia trades more heavily with China than New Zealand firms do.  If distance is your concern, Australia is physically closer to Asia –  and the waterways of the South China Sea.  Our political leaders – National, Labour, New Zealand First, Green –  could speak out, could act forcefully.  But they won’t.

Shameless and shameful.

 

UPDATE: As I pressed publish, I discovered that I’d been sent a link to some other reflections on Peters and Haworth by China expert Geremie Barme.

 

 

 

 

Whither cash?

Last week the Reserve Bank released an interesting Analytical Note on “Crypto-currencies – An introduction to not-so-funny moneys” .    If, like me, you hadn’t paid a great deal of attention to Bitcoin and the like, it is a very useful introduction to the subject, from a monetary perspective (including some of the potential policy and regulatory issues).  At least for me, it struck just the right balance of detail and perspective.

Analytical Notes are published with the standard disclaimer that the material in them represents the views of the authors rather than, necessarily, of the Bank.  (That said, I’m pretty sure nothing has ever been published in one that the Bank was unhappy with.)  They are mostly written by researchers rather than policy people.  So it was interesting, and perhaps a little surprising, to get to the second to last page of this paper and find this

Work is currently under-way to assess the future demand for New Zealand fiat currency and to consider whether it would be feasible for the Reserve Bank to replace the physical currency that currently circulates with a digital alternative. Over time, analysis associated with this project will filter through into the public domain.

Interesting, because that is quite a radical and specific suggestion: to replace physical currency with a digital alternative.   And surprising because there was no hint of this work –  on a pretty major issue affecting all New Zealanders –  in the Reserve Bank’s Statement of Intent released only a few months ago.   Statements of Intent can seem like just another bureaucratic hoop to jump through, but the requirement to prepare and publish them was put in place for a reason: it is supposed to be the vehicle through which the Minister of Finance can inject his or her views on what the Bank’s work priorities should be, and is supposed to enable stakeholders and the public more generally to get a sense of what the Bank is up to.

I’m pleased the Reserve Bank is now doing this work on the future of currency.  Over the last couple of years I have been critical of the fact that, in published documents, there was no sign of any such preparatory work going on (including, more generally, around dealing with the problems of the near-zero lower bound, which will almost certainly become binding for New Zealand in our next recession).  In this year’s Statement of Intent, for example, published as recently as the end of June, there was 1.5 pages (pp 28-29) on the Bank’s currency functions, and not a hint of any work on the possibility of replacing physical currency with digital currency.   Perhaps doing the work is an initiative of temporary “acting Governor” –  but then he was required, by law, as Deputy Governor, to sign the Statement of Intent.  Or perhaps it was just the Bank deliberately keeping things secret?

As usual with the Bank, they talk loftily about how the analysis will eventually “filter through to the public domain”.  That isn’t good enough –  this is publicly funded work on a matter of considerable potential significance – , and I have lodged an Official Information Act request for the research and analysis they have already done.

I’ve come and gone for decades on what the best approach to physical currency is.  I’ve long been troubled by the monopoly Parliament gave to the Reserve Bank over the issuance of physical notes and coin.  There is no good economic reason for it (nothing about the efficacy of monetary policy for example) –  and for half of modern New Zealand history it wasn’t the situation in New Zealand.  For decades it may well have led to inefficiently low currency holdings: in a genuinely competitive market there is a reasonable chance that (eg) serial number lotteries would have provided a (expected) return to holders of bank notes.  In the high inflation years –  and especially as interest rates were deregulated –  holding as little currency as possible was the sensible thing to do.

notes and coin

As the chart shows, the ratio of notes and coins (in the hands of the public) to GDP troughed in the year to March 1988 –  when inflation and interest rates were both high (and, of course, returns to holding currency were zero).

At one level, the partial recovery in the amount of physical currency held isn’t too surprising.  Inflation has been low for decades, and interest rates are now very low too.  Holding physical currency isn’t very costly at all.

Then again, there have been huge advances in payments technologies.   Even when I started work, the Reserve Bank still offered to pay its staff (I think perhaps only the clerical and operational staff) in cash, and that wouldn’t have been too uncommon then.  ATMs didn’t exist then –  it was the queue at the local bank branch each Friday lunchtime –  let alone EFTPOS, internet banking and so on.   These days, by contrast, a huge proportion (by value) of transactions occur electronically.  Even school fairs –  often held out previously as the sort of place one really needed cash for –  have often gone electronic to some extent at least.

And although the ratio of cash to GDP is quite low in New Zealand (by international standards –  in many advanced economies something around 5 per cent isn’t uncommon –  there is still a lot of cash around.    The numbers in the chart are equivalent to a bit more than $1000 per man, woman, and child.    For a household like mine, more than $5000.    I’m a slow adapter, and almost always do have a reasonable amount of cash on me, but I’d be surprised if on an average day our household had more than $250 in cash in total (surveys from other countries suggest that isn’t unusual).   I’m not sure I’ve ever had a $100 bill, but Reserve Bank data suggest that on average each man, woman, and child has $400 in $100 bills.

As it happens, last week I was reading (Harvard economics professor) Ken Rogoff’s book The Curse of Cash.   As he notes, in the United States, there is around $3400 per man, woman, and child outstanding in US $100 bills –  while surveys of what ordinary consumers are actually carrying suggest that no more than 1 in 20 adults has a $100 bill on them at any one time.    Rogoff makes a pretty strong case that the bulk of physical currency holdings – even allowing, in say the US case, for the use of the USD in other countries – is held to facilitate illegality.   That could be outright illegal activities –  the drugs trade for example –  or tax evasion in respect of the proceeds of lawful activities.  The likely revenue losses, on his estimates, are very substantial.    The scale of the problem is probably smaller here, but there is no point pretending that the issue is specific to the United States (and, as Rogoff documents, a number of European countries have now put limits on the maximum size of cash payments –  although such rules seem more likely to catch those who comply with the law, rather than those who knowingly break it).

Somewhat reluctantly, Rogoff’s book has shifted my perspective on the physical cash issue.    As a macroeconomist, my main interest in this area in recent years has been to do something about the near-zero lower bound on nominal interest rates.  If the Reserve Bank cut interest rates to, say, -5 per cent, it would be attractive for people to pull money out of banks and hold it in physical currency in safe deposit boxes. If that happened to any large extent it would substantially undermine the effectiveness of monetary policy.  The fear that it might happen has already constrained central banks in various countries, and no one has been willing to cut official interest rates below 0.75 per cent (which was also about how far we thought the OCR could be cut when I led some work on the issue at the Reserve Bank some years ago).

Getting rid of physical currency altogether would solve the problem.  If there is no domestic cash, clearly you can’t hold any.  Of course, you could always seek out foreign cash, but the process of doing that would lower our exchange rate –  one of the ways monetary policy works, and thus not a problem.    But one doesn’t need to get rid of cash –  or even just large denomination notes –  to limit that risk.    There are various clever options that have been developed in the literature (effectively involving an exchange rate between physical and electronic cash), and as I’ve noted here previously, one could achieve the same result by simply putting a physical limit on the amount of currency the Reserve Bank issues, and then auctioning it to the banks (if demand surged this would, in effect, introduce an exchange rate or a fee).    It is disconcerting that, as far as we can tell, no country is properly prepared to use options like these in the next recession (which, in itself, risks exacerbating the recession because smart observers will recognise that governments have fewer options than usual) –  no one has (at least openly) done the preparatory legal work, or prepared the ground with the public.  Our Reserve Bank is, as as we can tell, no exception.

I’ve resisted the idea of getting rid of physical currency on both convenience and privacy grounds.  There is, as yet, no real substitute for cash if –  say –  one wants to send a child to the local dairy to buy the newspaper when one is on holiday.   And the ability to conduct entirely innocent transactions without the state being able to know what one is spending one’s money on (or one’s bank for that matter) remains a very attractive ideal.

And yet….and yet…..I wonder if it is a real freedom now to any great extent anyway.   We might not gone all the way –  yet –  to China’s “social credit” scoring system, but you have to be pretty determined to avoid the gaze of a government determined to find out what you’ve been up to.  Some of that is voluntary –  people choose to carry phones around, for example, which locate you –  and some of it isn’t (local councils put up CCTVs, and so do all too many retailers). AML provisions, and know-your-customer rules are ever more pervasive and intrusive.   Sure, using cash enables one to keep from a spouse what one spent on a birthday present, or where it was bought from, but it is a pretty small space left.

And so perhaps it is best for us to think now about serious steps towards phasing out physical currency.  Rogoff himself doesn’t recommend complete abolition at this stage, but rather ceasing to issue, and then over time withdrawing, high denomination notes.   Our largest note isn’t very large at all (NZD100 is only around USD70) but as I noted earlier a huge share of currency in circulation is in the form of $100 bills, even in New Zealand, which few people use for day-to-day transactions that are both lawful in themselves and where there is no intention to evade lawful tax obligations.   But if we were to amend the law to prohibit the Reserve Bank from issuing notes larger than (say) $20 –  and this is a decision that should be made by Parliament or at least an elected minister, not by a single bureaucrat –  we’d still make small cash transaction easy enough (school fair, or the kid sent to buy the newspaper, while greatly increasing the difficulty of a major flight to cash in the next serious recession, and increasing the difficulty of tax evasion and other criminal transactions.

If the government were to choose to go this way, it would still make sense for active precautions to be taken now to reduce the risk of the effectiveness of monetary policy being undermined even by a flight to $20 notes –   they take up roughly five times as much space as the equivalent amount in $100 notes, but you can still fit a lot of money in a secure vault.   Whatever the mix of measures, it is really important that the authorities –  Bank, Treasury, IRD, government, FMA –  adopt a greater degree of urgency.  No one knows when the next serious recession will be, but it isn’t prudent (ever) to assume it is far away.

And what of the Reserve Bank’s own scheme: the possibility of replacing physical currency with digital Reserve Bank currency?   We need to see more of what they have in mind.  My own long-held prediction is that they are two quite different products –  only the RB can issue physical notes, while anyone can issue electronic transactions media –  and that in normal times demand for a Reserve Bank retail-level digital currency would be almost non-existent.   That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it: there is something about the democratisation of finance, in enabling the public to hold the same sort of secure liability banks already can (in their case electronic settlement account balances), and  –  as we saw globally in 2008 –  banks runs can still happen.   Unless society decides to completely up-end the entire monetary system (and I have readers who favour that), we need an “outside money” that people can convert their bank liabilities into if/when they lose confidence in the issuing institution or system.    For most purposes, a digital Reserve Bank retail currency should be able to do that at least as well as physical banknotes.

Most….but not necessarily all (when serious people worry about EMP attacks on/by North Korea, there is no point pretending electronics is the answer to everything).   Those are the sorts of issues that need to be carefully examined, preferably in an open way, rather than with conclusions loftily filtered out to the public when it suits the officials.

Rogoff’s book is worth reading, especially (but not only) if you are new to the issue.  He covers a range of issues I didn’t have space for, including natural disasters (where cash might be more useful than cards, but most people don’t hold much cash anyway, so it actually isn’t that much of a help.)  Like the Reserve Bank paper, he also points out that things like Bitcoin offer a lot less effective anonymity than many people realise.

 

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.

value-added

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.

No fix for the flawed fundamentals

I’ve had fairly low expectations of what a change of government might mean for overall economic policy, but at present the new government seems to be charting a course to under-deliver even those low expectations.

The Minister of Finance yesterday gave his major public speech since taking office, explicitly selling it as an outline of the government’s economic strategy.     Sadly, there wasn’t very much there, and much of what was there focused –  as his speech title did –  on sharing and redistributing, with very little on reversing the decades of dismal economic underperformance.   Simply cutting the pie differently is no long-term solution to the sort of failure that has seen almost a million New Zealanders (net) leave New Zealand for a better life, for them and their families, abroad.

During the election campaign I was somewhat critical of Labour for simply accepting the National government’s narrative that the economy was basically doing fine.  But at least then I could sort of understand why they might do it –  something about not scaring the voters in the centre ground and not coming across as alarmist when they didn’t have much of a solution.    It is bit more surprising, and much more disappointing, to see that narrative carried over into office.

Here is what the Minister of Finance had to say this morning

While the fundamentals of our economy were, and are, strong, the purpose of it had become lost.

Again, perhaps after some bad business confidence numbers he doesn’t want to scare the horses.  But (a) you don’t produce better outcomes without actually facing what has gone wrong in the past, and (b) it is starting to seem as though the Minister of Finance actually believes the story on some level.

Grant Robertson was born in 1971.  Even by then, our economy had been in relative decline for a couple of decades –  and all the contemporary experts knew it.  But if we were no longer among the most productive and wealthiest of the then advanced economies, at least we were still in the middle of the pack.  Since then, we’ve just lost further ground –  the relative decline was particularly bad in the 1970s, but there has never been a sustained period since then when we’ve looked like reversing any of the relative decline.  Not under National governments, and not under Labour government’s either.    When Grant Robertson went off to university, eastern and central Europe was still Communist-run, with highly inefficient poorly-performing economies.    These days, the better performing of those countries –  Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic – are closing in on New Zealand levels of productivity/income, and places like Hungary and Poland aren’t that further behind.   Turkey is on the brink of going past us.   They’ve done quite well, but still have a long way to go to catch up with the West European leaders.  We’ve just done really rather badly; mediocre at a (generous) best.

Economies that are performing well  are typically ones in which the tradables sector of the economy is growing.   Local firms are finding more products and services which they can sell to, or compete with, the rest of world.   But we’ve had no growth in real per capita tradables sector GDP since around 2000.  Exports are a share of GDP are, as I illustrated the other day, now at the lowest level since 1976.

Over the last quarter century – even after the economic reforms –  our productivity growth has been among the lowest in the OECD (and we started from a bad position).  Most starkly –  and this a point that Robertson does mention –  we’ve had no productivity growth at all for the last five year.

And then, of course, there is the disastrously dysfunctional housing/land market: a country with so much land nonetheless has some of highest house price to income ratios anywhere in the advanced world.

Frankly, the “fundamentals of our economy” are pretty poor, especially if what we care about is the ability to support high incomes (fairly shared) for all of our people.  Yes, there are some things we can chalk up on the other side:  we’ve largely avoided a domestic financial crisis, our government accounts are sound, our people are pretty highly skilled (we’ll come back to that one), and our unemployment rate isn’t too bad (even if it is still above a NAIRU).   But mostly those are ‘inputs”: the “outputs” and “outcomes” don’t look very attractive at all.  And that makes it all the harder to deal effectively with some of the pressing social (and environmental) issues.

You might think an incoming government was well-positioned to point this stuff out.  But I guess there is no point in doing so if you haven’t got a strategy that is likely to be (a) materially different from what went before, and thus (b) likely to produce material different outcomes.

Instead, they seem to want to play down the dismal economic data and follow The Treasury down the not-particularly-well-grounded path of the Living Standards Framework (which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago)

I have asked the Treasury to further develop and accelerate the world-leading work they have been doing on the Living Standards Framework.  This focuses on measuring our success in developing four capitals – financial, physical, human and social. These give a rounded measure of success and of how government policy is improving our well-being.

This is a far better framework for judging our success.

As I’ve suggested previously, it looks more like a way of avoiding confronting our really bad long-term economic performance and the very large trend outflow of our own people.

The Minister of Finance claims they will keep a focus on productivity.

Low productivity has been a cloud over the New Zealand economy for decades and previous governments have failed to tackle this issue – this government will not.

Which sounds okay, perhaps even momentarily encouraging.  But how are they going to do this?  The Minister identifies only two areas.   The first is skills.

Lifting the skills of our people is critical to solving the productivity challenge.

In fact, there is not the slightest evidence for this proposition, which would lead the reader to suppose that skill levels in New Zealand lagged behind those in other, more economically successful, OECD countries.   No doubt we can do better (and there are specific pockets of underperformance), and there have been some disconcerting developments in the PISA results in recent years.  But the OECD produced data only last year suggesting that New Zealand workers were among the two or three most highly-skilled in the OECD.      They used three measures and this was one of them

oecd problem solving

As I summed it up at the time

Looking across the three measures, by my reckoning only Finland, Japan, and perhaps Sweden do better than New Zealand.

Increased subsidies for tertiary education (the policy Robertson then advances) will, no doubt, serve a redistributional function (even if one of questionable merit –  and I say that as a parent with three kids likely to go to university in the next eight years).  But there is little evidence they will do anything to close aggregate productivity gaps –  which, in New Zealand, aren’t about the skills or energies workers bring with them, or even about our legal institutions, but about the profitable business opportunities firms can find here.

And the second strand to Robertson’s response to our productivity failure is R&D.

Also critical for lifting productivity is increased investment in Research, Development and Innovation. The first step in this is the introduction of an R and D Tax Credit.  Beyond that we will move to work smarter, adding value to change the mix of our exports and using and creating new technologies.

I’m not aware of any serious observer, even among supporters of R&D tax credits, who believe that such credits are likely to make a transformative difference.

This is the data from the national accounts (March years) for research and development spending as a share of GDP.

R&D

It would be interesting to know quite what was going on in the 1970s, but really ever since then there hasn’t been much change in the share of GDP devoted to R&D (as captured by Statistics New Zealand).  Interestingly, the most recent year saw the highest R&D share in the 45 year history of the series.

Many observers point out that New Zealand is relatively unusual among advanced countries in not having an R&D tax credit.  There are various other countries, including Denmark and Switzerland, but on the extreme far end of the OECD’s chart of a summary indicator of such matters are New Zealand and Germany.

And yet here is the OECD’s data on R&D spending.  For this particular series they don’t have data for New Zealand for every year, but the picture is still clear enough.

R&D 2

The New Zealand R&D spend (as a share of GDP) is well below the OECD total, and Germany’s has been consistently above (as are those in Denmark and Switzerland).   And neither country has R&D tax credits.  In fact, when the OECD totted up all the different sorts of government support for business R&D, the New Zealand government was considerably more generous than Germany.

It suggests, as I’ve argued here for some time, a need to stand back and think about what it might be in the New Zealand economic environment that means so little R&D occurs here.  Firms typically take the risk of investing in R&D when they think the opportunities for profitable businesses are good.     That doesn’t appear to have been the case in New Zealand (in contrast, say, to Germany), and consistent with that overall business investment as a share of GDP in New Zealand has been low by advanced country standards, for decades, even though our population growth rate has been much faster than that in the typical OECD country (more people will typically require more business investment if living standards are to keep pace).   This is not the place for a lengthy discussion of factors that might discourage firms from investing here, but high interest rates (relative to those abroad), an out of line real exchange rate, and being the most remote advanced country on earth (at a time when personal connections, value-chains etc seem to have become more important) might be things to think about.  Not one of them appears in the Minister’s speech.

 

Perhaps the closest he comes is in a summary of the government’s approach

In other words, we’ll be swapping out population growth and the buying and selling houses to each other as our two main growth drivers for much more sustainable ones. That sounds like a good description of our plan.

But they aren’t changing the medium-term immigration targets at all (and various media report that the Prime Minister isn’t even keen on implementing Labour proposed changes re student and work visas),  and simply buying and selling houses has never, of itself, been a “growth driver”.

There is the beginning of an idea here, but sadly nothing in government policy –  as outlined so far – is likely to represent any sort of fix.  After all, a key thrust of government policy is to build lots more houses, and they plan to just keep on keeping on issuing 45000 residence approvals a year for people to settle in such a remote, unpropitious (from an economic perspective) location.  Perhaps worse still, they seem keen on continuing, and beefing-up, the previous government’s misguided approach of trying to steer migrants to places other than Auckland (which is, on my telling, to put the cart before the horse).

One gets to the end of the speech confident that the government knows how it wants to redistribute more/differently than what went before (much the same could be said of Phil Twyford’s housing speech yesterday), but without any sense of a compelling strategy that is likely to do anything to reverse New Zealand’s long-term economic underperformance, to fix those flawed fundamentals.  I hope they really care about fixing the fundamentals and are just keeping quiet because they don’t have any compelling ideas –  and aren’f finding them in The Treasury’s post-election advice.  I fear that, a bit like their predecessors, it is some mix of putting the problems in the too-hard basket, and of no longer really caring that much.

Transparency: Bank of England vs RBNZ

Open government –  or the lack of it –  has been getting a bit of attention in recent weeks.  The previous National-led government was pretty poor in that area, and if anything there now seems to be a risk that the current government could be worse.  But at least there is some debate around the issues.  Former Cabinet minister, and now Speaker, Trevor Mallard, had one promising suggestion in an article this morning

“Eventually getting some websites going which contain most of that material, for example, Cabinet papers two months after they’ve been to Cabinet automatically up unless there’s a good reason not to, just that sort of stuff would mean you’d have a lot of access to, actually quite boring information, but access to what’s going on.”

Easy to suggest, of course, when you are no longer a minister.  I hope the new Speaker will be as keen on extending the provisions of an (overhauled) Official Information Act to cover Parliament itself.

The Reserve Bank is one of the bodies that likes to claim that it is highly transparent.    There are plenty of counter-examples –  and occasional examples that might suggest that progress is actually being made –  but I stumbled across an interesting contrast this week between our central bank and the Bank of England, the central bank of the United Kingdom.  Recall that the British public sector was notoriously secretive for a very long time, and our Official Information Act was enacted many years before the UK’s comparable legislation.

In its Financial Stability Report this week, the Reserve Bank released a high-level summary of the results of its latest stress tests on the four major banks.  What they released was interesting enough but there wasn’t much of it; 850 words and a couple of charts.  There was, for example, no information on individual banks –  despite a disclosure-focused system –  and no detail on housing mortgage losses –  despite the active regulatory and rhetorical focus on those risks for the last five years.

Earlier in the week, the Bank of England released its Financial Stability Report, and as part of that they released their latest stress test results.  Their release –  on the stress tests alone –  was 64 pages, with a great deal of detail, on the test scenarios themselves, on the overall results, and on the results for individual banks.   It even has an interesting annex on how markets’ view of banks square with the stress test results.

To be sure, the UK banks are typically more complex than the New Zealand banks (some, such as HSBC, are primarily global banks with big international exposures), and there are more of them (seven in this test) so we might not expect 64 pages of results here.  But we really should be entitled to more than the Reserve Bank is giving us.  There is no obvious (good) reason for withholding the material –  including that at an individual bank level.  Disclosure statements are actually already supposed to disclose banks’ risks, and  stress tests are just shocks designed to test the circumstances under which those risks turn bad.  And, in the end, it is banks (individually) that fail, or not, not “banking systems”.

Sure, there is probably some cost to pulling all the material together and presenting it nicely, but those costs will be trivial compared to the costs the banks face in doing the stress tests, or even than the Reserve Bank faces in conducting them and writing them up for senior management and/or the Board.  Accountability provisions and openness do have direct costs –  and, for that reason among others, aren’t typically popular with bureaucrats – but we put them in place for good reason.  With such large and powerful governments we are long past the days when we could safely accept an approach of “trust us, we know what we are doing”, all the more so when it involves agencies – such as the Reserve Bank –  with huge power concentrated in one person’s hands and little direct effective accountability (we can’t vote him out).

I could, of course, lodge an Official Information Act request .  If I did they would probably release some more aggregated material.  But I wouldn’t get very far, as the Bank continues to shelter –  with the protection of the Ombudsman –  behind the egregious (or, more accurately, egregiously abused) section 105(1) of the Reserve Bank Act.  When the Reserve Bank Act is reviewed, doing something about that provision needs to be on the action list.

If the British can manage this high degree of openness around banking sector stress tests –  only a few years after they had to grapple with actual bank failures – surely so can we.