A garrulous Governor

We’ve had talkative new central bank Governors previously.  Shortly after Don Brash took office people took note of the way he was commenting pretty freely on a lot of issues.  Tom Scott captured it this way.

brash 3.png

If the latest new Governor is really keen on transparency and openness on things he has responsibility for, I could readily offer a list of suggestions (well short of webcasting MPC deliberations).  He could, for example, publish (with a short lag)

  • the minutes of the Governing Committee meetings in which he makes his OCR decisions,
  • a summary of the written advice (recommendations and risks) he gets from his internal Monetary Policy Committee, and
  • the background papers generated internally in the process of deciding on his forecasts and OCR decisions.

On the latter point, I’m still engaged in an appeal to the Ombudsman to get hold of the analysis the Bank used last November in making written (but not substantiated) Monetary Policy Statement comments about the macroeconomic impacts of various of the new government’s policy initiatives.   To be clear, there was no problem with them making comments –  things like Kiwibuild should affect demand pressures and thus the near-term inflation outlook – the issue was the lack of detail, and the refusal then to release the background papers.

Perhaps the new Governor will take steps along these lines.  We have not yet seen an OCR decision on his watch, and journalists must already be relishing the first scheduled Orr press conference next month, given his readiness to comment at length on all matter of things that are no part of the responsibility of the Reserve Bank.  It is great that he is fronting up to the media –  in a way quite unknown during Graeme Wheeler’s term –  but is there anything about which he will say, if asked, “well, that isn’t really something that would be appropriate for me, as central bank Governor, to comment on”?  There has been no sign of such restraint so far.

I wrote on Friday about the Governor’s interview on Radio New Zealand.  In a comment to that post, one of my former colleagues described it as

I thought it was rather a good one – compared with many of the media beat-ups about this and that with which we seem to be currently afflicted. And refreshing to hear interesting perspectives about the need for coherent approaches to our strategic directions, and the risks associated with longer term structural adjustments in several dimensions.

As I noted in response, if you didn’t know who the interview was with, there was no particular problem with the content (reasonable people can have quite different views on the substantive issues and we benefit from debate).  Had it been an interview with think-tank person, an academic, a journalistic commentator, or even a retired Governor or Secretary to the Treasury, it might have been a welcome addition to the ongoing dialogue on important economic and social issues.

But it was the independent Governor of the central bank, banging the drum for a whole lots of causes where his words will have been music to the ears of the current government, on issues where (even if he may have some personal expertise/experience on some of them) the Reserve Bank has no responsibility, and no institutional expertise.   It would have been almost as bad if he had been taking the opposite position on those issues, or advocating a bunch of right-wing causes.  And I only say “almost as bad”, not to take a view of the merits of those issues, but simply because at least if Orr was overstepping the mark on the right-wing side, there would have been no suggestion that he was trying to butter-up the current government – championing many of their causes –  in a year when he has a lot of turf battles to fight and win.  There are all the legislative details of the Stage 1 changes to the Reserve Bank Act, and the subsequent provisions of the Charter, let alone Stage 2 where if things go badly for the Governor he could find his powers very greatly reduced –  or indeed find the regulatory/supervisory functions split out of the Reserve Bank altogether.   The decisions the government finally makes are more likely to go the Governor’s way if the government finds him useful, supportive, and generally agreeable.

I don’t suppose that there is anything dishonest in what the Governor is saying.  I presume he is quite as left-liberal (“a passion for issues such as social equality, diversity and the environment”) as his comments and journalists’ accounts of interviews suggest.  But the personal politics –  views on all manner of other issues –  of the Governor shouldn’t be relevant to his conduct in office, and shouldn’t be on display at all.  It isn’t just the Governor: the same goes for the Commissioner of Police, the Chief Justice, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Ombudsman, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, the Auditor-General, the Inspector-General of Intelligence, or whoever (let alone heads of government departments).  When the personal politics of any of these people is on display – on issues for which they have no official responsibility – it degrades the office, and diminishes the likely general respect for the office-holder (even as the groupies of one side or the other mostly welcome the support).  It also complicates the ability of the office holder to serve a government of a different stripe: Orr, for example, has a five year term, only half of which is before the next election.  It isn’t a role where the holder simply serves at the pleasure of the government of the day.

The Governor’s garrulity was on display again yesterday in a fairly short pre-recorded interview on TVNZ’s Q&A programme.  This time the topics weren’t climate change, sustainable farming, or infrastructure finance.  Instead, this interview covered capital gains taxes and the Australian banking royal commission.    Whether or not a capital gains tax is a good idea isn’t really a matter for the Reserve Bank.  It is a (highly) political choice, with various technical tax policy perspectives offering reasons why one might favour such a tax or oppose it.  As the Bank itself has previously noted, there is no evidence that whether or not one has a CGT makes much difference to the housing market or house prices.   Now, to be fair, the Governor didn’t specifically say he favoured a CGT, but at the end, having attempted to suggest that there were relevant financial stability dimensions, he observed “we need a more efficient level playing field around tax”, to which Corin Dann responded –  with no objection from the Governor – “I’ll take that as a yes”.   Perhaps he should have gone on to ask the Governor whether the “level playing field” he favoured –  with no actual responsibility for tax policy or the housing market –  included the family home in his CGT.    (Incidentally, in both the Q&A and Radio NZ interviews I heard the Governor suggest that 90 per cent of household net worth is in housing.  He is quite wrong about that.  The numbers are on his own institution’s website.)

Then there was the matter of the Australian Royal Commission into banking, and the question of whether such an inquiry was required here.  To be clear, the Australian Royal Commission was ordered by the Australian government, under intense political pressure.  It had – and has –  almost nothing to with the financial soundness of the banking system, or any of the sorts of issues the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has responsibility for in New Zealand.  It seems to be mostly about consumer protection (and abuse) issues.  So what possessed the Governor to declare that we don’t such an inquiry in New Zealand?  It isn’t his responsibility –  either formally (it is for the government to set up Royal Commission) or even covering the Bank’s policy ground (the “soundness and efficiency of the financial system’).  He went on to declare that the banking culture in New Zealand is “infinitely better than in Australia” –  one might hope so, but given that they are mostly the same banks, and several are or were until recently headed by New Zealanders, you have to wonder what evidence he has for that belief.   The substance of the issue –  abuses in the Australian banking system etc –  isn’t one I focus on, and so I don’t have a view on whether we need an inquiry or not (although the final Australian report could shed light on that).  But quite how, three weeks into the job, the Governor can express so much confidence in the Reserve Bank, the FMA, and MBIE in dealing with such issues – “all over them, every day” was the flavour –  is a bit beyond me.  Perhaps he could look into the approach to such things of his own Deputy.

There are, of course, plenty of cases where central bank Governors overstep the bounds in their comments –  it is common enough to prompt Willem Buiter to write the paper I linked to on Friday –  but few with quite the degree of abandon of our new Governor.  For his own good, and that of the institution and New Zealand public life (avoiding the politicisation of key institutions), he needs to be reined in.   In one of the Stuff profiles on the new Governor he observed

The problem was finding something which suited his temperament.

“I am certainly attracted to wanting to make a difference.”

He is also attracted situations involving drama and excitement.

“Being a ginger, I tend to run towards the fire, rather than away from the fire.

Sounds like the sort of character that would suit many roles.  It doesn’t naturally sound like a Governor of a central bank.  Central banking –  monetary policy and financial stability –  done well should be boring (and not very politically divisive).  The image I often used to use was of the fire brigades at airports.  In an ideal world, if you ever give it a thought you take comfort from knowing they are there, but you don’t expect to hear from them, and hope they are never needed to do much.  The parallel isn’t exact, but I’d argue it is closer to the ideal than a garruous Governor sounding off on every policy question some journalist happens to ask.  If he continues as he is starting, the value of his words will be greatly devalued.  And that would be a shame.

The Governor and the Minister of Finance should also give some thought to how the communications style the Governor is adopting fits with the approach to communications that the Minister announced a few weeks ago.    In that announcement, the Minister indicated that he would be legislating to establish a statutory Monetary Policy Committee, in which the Governor would have a majority of insiders, a role in appointing the outsiders, and in which

The Governor will chair the MPC and will be the sole spokesperson on its decisions.

Other MPC members are not be allowed to give speeches or interviews offering their own perspectives.

The Reserve Bank’s stance has been that if individual members were free to speak (as they are, say, in the US, UK, and Sweden) and are individually accountable for their advice and votes), it would be a “circus”  (though as Bernard Hickey points out, this example is hardly evidence of something wrong with the system).  At present, legally, the Governor is speaking only for himself –  as the sole lawful decisionmaker –  but soon, at least on monetary policy matters, he will become no more than first among equals.  Even at present, there is a real risk that the Bank’s messages on monetary policy and financial stability –  including the crucial ones about the limits of what Bank policy can do –  will be drowned in a cacaphony of comment on all manner of things, that commentators will come to assume it is normal for the Governor to comment on.  I’d welcome the open contest of ideas, and evidence of a range of views, on the appropriate path of interest rates, or how best to build monetary policy space for the next recession.  I’m not sure it would wise to have one –  let alone six – members of the MPC all offering their thoughts on climate change, the merits of a CGT, or whatever.  It is time for the Governor to stop and reset –  and for the Board and Minister to have a quiet chat, and encourage the Governor to think again.

 

Inflation still looks pretty subdued

The latest CPI data were released a couple of days ago.  Perhaps the only real news was that nothing much seemed to have changed, here or abroad, in the last few months’ data.

Here is a chart of OECD core inflation rates

oecd core inflation apr 18

I’ve shown a few different indicators.  Whichever you prefer there isn’t much sign of inflation picking up in the rest of the advanced economies.

Here is the Reserve Bank’s preferred core inflation measure.

sec fac model april 18

If there has been some hint of inflation picking up a little, it remains as excruciatingly slow as ever.   In a series with lots of persistence, the 2 per cent target midpoint seems a long way away.   And although the Reserve Bank and some outside analysts like to suggest this is all about tradables inflation (a) the gap between the core tradables and non-tradables inflation at present is just around the historical average, and (b) tradables inflation, in New Zealand dollar terms, is at least in part an outcome of monetary policy (the exchange rate directly influences it).

Here are a couple of non-tradables series I’ve shown before.

NT inflation bits

This measure of core non-tradables remains persisently below the rate (somewhere near 3 per cent) that would be consistent with overall core inflation remaining around the 2 per cent target.    The extent to which construction cost inflation has been falling away again is now quite marked: it doesn’t just look like noise.

And what of market implied expectations of future inflation from the government bond market?

IIB breakevens Apr 18Nowhere near 2 per cent, and if anything a bit lower than they were three months ago when the last inflation numbers were released.

Pictures like these should be a challenge for the new Governor as he ponders his first OCR decision and associated communications.   After all these years, there still isn’t much sign of (core) inflation getting back to 2 per cent, and there doesn’t seem much impetus from either domestic demand (for which construction cost inflation is often an important straw in the wind) or foreign inflation.

Some who have previously been “dovish” now point to higher oil prices as a reason –  either directly, or just as a straw in the wind – why perhaps core inflation will finally pick up.  Perhaps, but it is hardly been an infallible indicator historically.  Others note that our exchange rate has fallen.  That’s true too, but at present the TWI is about 2-3 per cent lower than the five-yearly average level (not much more than noise), and historically falling exchange rate have often been associated with falling non-tradables inflation (depending what drives the particular exchange rate move).

Time will tell, but in his RNZ interview the other day I heard the Governor praising the “courage” of central banks internationally for having held interest rates so low for so long, despite very strong growth, to help get the inflation rates back up to target.  I wasn’t sure I recognised any element of the description –  in the advanced world, central banks have mostly been reluctant to have interest rates low, and growth has rarely been particularly strong (both caveats seem to describe New Zealand).  But perhaps the Governor needs to consider displaying some of courage he says he has admired and take steps to get New Zealand inflation securely back to target.

 

A mis-step by the new Governor

Seventeen years ago, in August 2001, then Reserve Bank Governor, Don Brash gave a speech to something called the Knowledge Wave conference, sponsored by Auckland university.  The speech had the title Faster growth? If we want it (at the link  for some reason it says the speech was given by Alan Bollard, who was Secretary to the Treasury at the time, but it was certainly a Brash effort –  here is the link to the version on his website ).   The speech drew a great deal of flak.  It was two years into the term of the Labour-Alliance government, and it had nothing much to do with monetary policy or financial stability (the Bank’s responsibilities), and instead offered the Governor’s views on what could or should be done to lift New Zealand’s economic performance.

According to the Governor, our culture was a big part of the problem

we seem to have some deeply-engrained cultural characteristics which are not conducive to rapid growth – surprisingly widespread disdain for commercial success, no strong passion for education, and a tendency to look for immediate gratification (as reflected in our very low savings rate and strong interest in leisure) – and it usually takes years, and perhaps generations, to change such cultural characteristics.

and the welfare system

does the present welfare system – with largely unrestricted access to benefits of indefinite duration, and with a very high effective marginal tax rate for those moving from dependence on such benefits into paid employment – provide appropriate incentives to acquire education and skills and to find employment?

we will not achieve a radical improvement in our economic growth rate while we have to provide income support to more than 350,000 people of working age – 60,000 more than when unemployment reached its post-World-War-II peak in the early nineties – to say nothing of the 450,000 people who derive most of their income from New Zealand Superannuation.

 

Could we, for example, drop all benefits to the able-bodied and scrap the statutory minimum wage, so that pay rates could fall to the point where the labour market fully clears, but simultaneously introduce a form of negative income tax to sustain total incomes at a socially-acceptable level? Could we introduce some kind of life-time limit on the period during which an able-bodied individual could claim benefits from the state? Could we, perhaps, gradually raise the age at which people become eligible for New Zealand Superannuation, reflecting the gradual increase in life expectancy and improved health among the elderly? One of my colleagues has suggested the idea of abolishing the unemployment benefit but introducing some kind of “employer of last resort” system, perhaps run by local authorities with support from central government, under which every local authority would be required to offer daily employment to anybody and everybody who asked for it.

and our schools

It must be a source of grave concern that so many of the people coming out of our high schools have only the most rudimentary idea of how to write grammatical English; and that while Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong occupied the top four places for mathematics in the Third International Maths and Science Study, New Zealand ranked only 21st (out of the 38 countries in the study). It can not be good for our economic growth, or for the employment prospects of many of our young people, that, according to an OECD report released in April 1998, nearly half of the workforce in New Zealand can not read well enough to work effectively in the modern economy. It must be a matter for particular concern that 70 per cent of Maori New Zealanders, and about three-quarters of Pacific Island New Zealanders, are functioning “below the level of competence in literacy required to effectively meet the demands of everyday life”.

and excessive regulation

Businesses saw the biggest single problem as the way in which the Resource Management Act was being implemented, and described dealing with that legislation as being “cumbersome, costly and complex”. It should not require two years to get all the approvals needed to set up an early child-care facility catering for only 30 children, or ministerial intervention to cut through the red-tape involved in setting up a boat-building yard. Most of us know similar horror stories.

and our tax system

Another matter relevant to how we might encourage more investment in physical capital is the tax regime. Do we need a substantial change in the tax structure to encourage investment in New Zealand by New Zealanders, by immigrants, and by foreign companies? And if so, what might that change look like? This isn’t the place to go into detail, but it would probably involve a significant reduction in the corporate tax rate (it is disturbing that New Zealand’s corporate tax rate is now the highest in the Asian region). The rate of company tax is rarely the only factor determining the location of a new investment, and indeed it is not often even the dominant factor. But it is a relevant factor, and is one of the issues to look at if we are serious about encouraging more investment in New Zealand.

There were some interesting ideas in the speech. I probably agreed with quite a few of them (I was one of those who gave comments on the draft text, which was even more radical and provocative).  It brought to mind comments about ‘save it for your  retirement”, or “stand for Parliament and make your case” –  which of course Don did a few months later.  But whether you agreed with him or not, whether the government of the day agreed with him or not, it just wasn’t appropriate for an incumbent Reserve Bank Governor.

The Governor is entrusted with a great deal of discretionary power in a limited number of areas.  Citizens need to be confident that the Governor is operating in the public interest, and not to come to suspect the Governor or the Bank of using a very powerful position –  and the pulpit it provides –  to advance personal agendas for policy in other areas.  Same goes for all sorts of key officeholders –  the Commissioner of Police, the Chief Justice or whoever.

That isn’t a novel perspective.  A few years ago Willem Buiter –  chief economist of Citibank and formerly an academic and external member of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee –  wrote a useful paper in which(from p286) he urged central bankers to “stick to their knitting”.

The notion that central banks should focus exclusively on their mandates and not be active participants in wider public policy debates, let alone be active players in the negotiations and bargaining processes that produce the political compromises that will help shape the economic, social and political evolution of our societies is, I believe, sound. Alan Blinder described this need for modesty and restraint for central bankers as sticking to their knitting.

As Buiter notes, central banks have often not followed that advice, but

Although always inappropriate, central banks straying into policy debates on
matters outside their mandates and competence is less of a concern when there is little central bank independence and the central bank functions mainly as the liquid arm of the Treasury. It becomes a matter of grave concern when central banks have a material degree of operational independence (and sometimes of target independence also).

Of one example of such straying he writes

Chairman Bernanke may be right or wrong about the usefulness of this kind of fiscal policy package at the time (for what it is worth, I believe he was largely right), but it is an indictment of the American political system that we have the head of the central bank telling members of Congress how they ought to conduct fiscal policy. Fiscal policy is not part of the Fed’s mandate. Nor is it part of the core competencies of the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board to make fiscal policy recommendations for the US federal government.

And of another

Draghi’s recent address at the Jackson Hole Conference organised by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas demonstrates how broad the range of economic issues is on which the President of the ECB feels comfortable to lecture, some might say badger, the political leadership of the EA (Draghi (2014)). Regardless of the economic merits of Draghinomics, there is something worrying, from a constitutional/legal/political/legitimacy perspective, if unelected central bank technocrats become key movers and shakers in the design and implementation of reforms and policies in areas well beyond their mandate and competence.

All of which came to mind when I listened this morning to the interview with new Reserve Bank Governor, Adrian Orr, undertaken yesterday by Radio New Zealand’s Kathryn Ryan.   The interview went for half an hour, and had all of Orr’s accustomed fluency (and not terribly searching questions), but probably half of it was on matters that had really no connection at all to the statutory responsibilities of the Reserve Bank.

He talked at length about climate change and what governments and firms did or didn’t (in his view) have to do.  Some of this no doubt built off his former role with the New Zealand Superannuation Fund –  including the (untransparent) shift in the portfolio away from carbon-intensive assets –  but he is now the Governor of the Reserve Bank, which  has no responsibility for, and isn’t particularly affected by, such matters.  And these are all highly politicised issues.  “The transition needs to start today” he insisted: many people might agree, while others will reasonably take a quite different view, valuing the option of waiting.   The developed world had “gorged on fossil fuel” for 300 years, and now we needed to offer resources to the emerging world.  Probably conventional wisdom at a Green Party rally, but this is from the Governor of the Reserve Bank.

The Governor urged everyone – firms, societies, banks and (presumably) governments to “think and act longer-term”, lamenting the failure of society to take heed of his strictures (and offering no evidence to support his case).   When was the Governor gifted foresight beyond that available to mere mortals? Most humans find the future uncertain, and the far future very much so –  just check out prognostications and concerns from 50 years ago –  and have to plan accordingly.

He seemed to lament the fact that Western societies were growing older –  surely one of the great successes of economic development –  and then declared that it was “fair enough” that the “have-nots” should want structural change now.  How can this possibly be appropriate for the Governor of the Reserve Bank?  (Even if the government of the day happened to agree with him, he is (a) an independent actor, and (b) may well still be in office when the other side of politics once again takes over.)

And, putting a stake in the ground in a hugely contentious issue he declared himself a “huge believer that the country has underinvested in infrastructure”, claimed that our mindset around infrastructure finance was 30 years out of date, and lamented our reluctance to embrace PPPs (while addressing none of the risks of downsides of such structures).

Returning to the Green Party type of narrative, the Governor declared that in his travels he found that the world was looking to New Zealand to show leadership in transitioning to “sustainable agriculture”, declaring how “fantastic” it was when individual farmers had made such a shift.

You might agree with him or some, all, or none of that (I’m in the “none” category myself) but that really isn’t the point.   It would have been quite as inappropriate if he’d been making the opposite points, or repeating the sorts of lines Don Brash was running in 2001 –  championing large company tax cuts, or vocally opposing R&D tax credits.   He has simply gone miles off reservation, nailing his colours to political masts that will make it very hard for him to gain respect as someone operating as an non-political powerful regulator (for now, until the Act changes, the single most powerful unelected official in New Zealand). Perhaps it was a rookie error, and recognising his mistake he can pull his head in, and concentrate on the tasks Parliament has given him, and the need –  acknowledged in his Stuff interview yesterday –  to markedly lift the Bank’s own game.  If not –  if it was conscious and deliberate –  it was a dangerous lurch in the direction of politicising one of the more important offices in our system of government.

I’m not suggesting central banks should never comment on other areas of policy, but they need to be very modest and self-effacing in doing so, and need to tie their comments, and the issues, chosen, very carefully to the Bank’s own areas of responsibilities.  It isn’t, for example in my view the Bank’s place to advocate land use liberalisation, but it is quite appropriate for them to highlight the way that policy choices in that area affect house and land prices, and thus influence the risks on bank balance sheets.  It generally isn’t appropriate for the Bank to take a view on the merits, or otherwise, of particular fiscal or structural policies. But at times the Bank will need to point out the implications of such choices for, say, the mix of monetary conditions.   We should value a good independent central bank, but the legitimacy of the institution –  and its ability to withstand threats to that independence –  will be compromised if Governors play politicians or independent policy and economic commentators.

(Of the bits of the interview dealing with Reserve Bank issues, I didn’t have much to disagree with –  although he seemed far too complacent about the ability of monetary policy globally to cope with the next recession.  There was one proposal that sounded eminently sensible, if challenging to operationalise.  Remarkably the interviewer asked him almost nothing about lifting the Bank’s own game, or the results of that New Zealand Initiative survey on the Bank’s conduct as regulator and supervisor.)

R&D tax credits: more ill-considered corporate welfare

In the minds of members of our new government, much of whatever hope they have of transforming New Zealand’s economic performance (productivity, foreign trade and so on) seems to rest on the proposed R&D tax credit.

Don’t just take my word for that.  Yesterday, they released a discussion document on details of the new tax credit, which is scheduled to take effect next year.  The document is headed Fuelling Innovation to Transform our Economy” .  In the Foreword, ministers gush

This Government’s vision is to build a better New Zealand for all our people and we see an incredible opportunity ahead of us to do this.

That means a country with affordable, healthy homes; an environment we can be proud to leave to future generations; and a diverse, sustainable, and productive economy that delivers for our people.

This vision can’t be delivered with the same old approaches. We need new ideas, new innovations, and new ways of looking at the world.

And that is where science, innovation and research can play an important role. That is where we see our innovators, our scientists, our entrepreneurs and our visionaries building a better New Zealand.

In the view of the government, businesses don’t spend enough on research and development.  They need to spend more.   Knowing better than businesses apparently, the government is to fling another subsidy into the mix.  My mind is carried back to bad old days of export incentives, and other patchwork attempts to avoid addressing the real issues (in those days, heavy import protection and a (typically) overvalued real exchange rate).

As far as I can see, the only thing released yesterday was the discussion document.  There was no officials’ advice on the economics of the proposal, no Cabinet paper, no regulatory impact statement. Not really anything at all, other than few assertions and then straight to the details of the proposed scheme –  the only bit they seem actually interested in consulting on.  Not once –  in yesterday’s document, or in anything else the government has published –  have I seen any considered analysis of why profit-maximising firms might have not regarded it as worthwhile to do more R&D spending here.   If you don’t understand that, it is unlikely that any proposed remedy is a serious well-structured response.  Much seems to rest on the fact that most –  but by no means all – OECD countries also offer these subsidies.

There is quite a reasonable argument to suggest that research and development spending is already rather favourably treated by the tax system.   Purchase a physical asset as part of your firm’s production, and you can only deduct it against taxable income through depreciation, over the expected economic life of the asset.  But research and development spending is really just another form of investment –  it is even in the national accounts (GDP numbers) as such.  But most of that spending is immediately deductible for tax purposes.   The R&D spending that Boeing did to come up with the 747 generated sales and profits over decades, but instead of that spending being offset against those profits in the  years they were earned, it would all have been deductible up-front.  The time-value of that favourable treatment is considerable (huge when the R&D leads to a product with a long period in the market).  And since New Zealand has now one of the higher company tax rates in the OECD, the value of that standard ability to deduct is already larger here than in many other OECD countries (and before people start invoking our imputation scheme, it is the company tax rate that matters for foreign investors and in the document the government says “We also want to attract large
international R&D intensive firms to New Zealand”).

In the discussion document there is a full page graphic highlighting gross R&D spends in a variety of advanced countries.  For some reason, even though the R&D credit is aimed at businesses, they don’t quote business R&D expenditure, so in this table I’ve added that column as well, using data from the OECD.

Total R&D Business R&D
% of GDP
United States 2.8 2
United Kingdom 2.9 1.1
Canada 1.7 0.9
Ireland 1.5 1.1
Finland 2.9 1.9
Denmark 3 1.9
Israel 4.3 3.6
Switzerland 3.4 2.4
Australia 2.8 1.2
New Zealand 1.3 0.6

Which is interesting, but it is perhaps worth pointing out that of those countries, Finland, Denmark, and Switzerland (as well as New Zealand) don’t have R&D tax credits.  As I’ve pointed out in other posts Germany doesn’t either –  and business expenditure of R&D there is about 2 per cent of GDP.    On OECD estimates, the value of the US tax credit is also very small.

R&D tax credits aren’t the only form of government spending to subsidise business R&D – in fact, the government’s new scheme involves doing away with the current grants.   And as it happens, OECD numbers suggests we already spend more (per cent of GDP) on such subsidies than Germany (DEU), and quite a lot more than Switzerland (CHE).

Direct government funding and tax support for business R&D, 2015

All of which might suggest taking a few steps back and thinking harder about why firms themselves don’t see it as worth undertaking very much R&D spending here.  But given a choice between hard-headed sceptical analysis and being seen to “do something”, all too often it is the latter that seems to win out.

In an earlier post, I pointed out

Formal research work done previously suggests that the rate of business R&D spending in New Zealand partly reflects the sort of stuff we produce.  One way to see that is to look the OECD’s commodity exporting countries, and compare them with seven economies at the heart of advanced Europe.  These are simply different types of economies.

BERD (% of GDP) BERD ( % of GDP)
Australia 1.23 Austria  2.03
Canada 0.93 Belgium  1.58
Chile 0.14 France  1.44
Mexico 0.17 Germany  1.96
New Zealand 0.57 Netherlands   1.10
Norway 0.87 Switzerland   2.05
Denmark   2.oo
Median 0.72 Median 1.96

In passing, it is also perhaps worth highlighting Israel –  an economy with very high business spending on R&D, and yet not only an economy with GDP per capita around that of New Zealand, but with a similarly poor longer-term productivity record.  They make and sell different stuff –  some of which clearly needs lots of R&D –  but not, overall, any more successfully than we do.

A reasonable counter to this sort of line of argument might be “ah yes, but we want to be Denmark –  after all, in some sense they once were New Zealand (agricultural exporter etc)”.     But if the opportunities are really here for such a transformation, has the government and its advisers stopped to think about why firms don’t seem to see investing in more R&D as offering a worthwhile expected return?  Danish firms didn’t seem to need an R&D tax credit to get there.

Personally, the 2025 Taskforce’s approach to the issue seems more persausive

The 2025 Taskforce addressed some of these issues in their 2009 Report (around p 70).  They argued that more attention should be given to the possibility that high levels of business R&D spending might reflect more about where particularly economies are at (near the frontier or not, differences in product mix) rather than being some independent factor explaining the success or failure of nations.  In their view, a highly successful New Zealand was likely to be one in which more business research and development spending was taking place, but as a consequence of that transformation rather than an independent cause of it.  That still seems like a pretty plausible story to me –  although New Zealand is long likely to be primarily an exporter of commodities, and richer commodity exporters (Norway, Australia and Canada) don’t have particularly high levels of business R&D spending.

And part of the transformation in New Zealand seems almost certain to involve a much lower real exchange rate for a prolonged period.  It was an important message in the 1980s –  when officials actually took it seriously –  and remains no less important today, even if ministers and officials now seem to ignore the issue.

I don’t want to spend time on the detailed issues of the design of the new tax credit.   But I did notice this

A business will need to spend a minimum of $100,000 on eligible expenditure,
within one year, to qualify for the Tax Incentive. The rationale for setting the threshold at $100,000 of eligible expenditure is to filter out claims that are not likely to be genuine R&D. $100,000 of expenditure is roughly the cost of one full time employee’s salary and related overhead costs.

It isn’t clear why small claims should be less likely to be all genuine R&D than large ones. But then juxtapose the planned threshold with this chart

BERD by firms NZ

In other words, a large proportion of the companies doing R&D won’t be eligible for the new subsidy at all, while the “big end of town” can gobble up generous subsidies from the taxpayer.  It is corporate welfare, deliberately skewed to the bigger firms.

An interesting feature of the proposed new tax credit is that there is no attempt to structure it to incentivise increased levels of R&D spend.  The tax credit will apply to the first dollar of R&D expenditure (for firms above the $100000 threshold) –   much of it spending the firm would have done anyway.  No doubt there are arguments for such an arrangement in practicality and minimising compliance costs.  But it also means that the returns to whatever additional R&D spend might take place as a result of the tax credit will have to be very high, to cover the cost of the whole programme.  And yet there is no attempt at any sort of cost-benefit analysis (actually not even an estimate of the fiscal cost) in the discussion document –  or even a hint that one has been done elsewhere.  It is as if the government believes that any increase in recorded deductible gross R&D spending will offer gains in material living standards for New Zealanders.   Perhaps, but it would be nice to see the case rigorously made, and the detailed assumptions exposed to scrutiny.

Full marks to the new Governor

Earlier in the week I wrote about the New Zealand Initiative’s report on economic regulators, and in particular the scathing feedback (in survey results and interviews) for the Reserve Bank’s handling of its extensive financial regulatory and supervisory function.

I noted then

One would hope that the new Governor, the new Minister, and the Treasury and the Board, are taking these results very seriously, and using them to, inter alia inform the shaping of Stage 2 of the review of the Reserve Bank Act.  I’ve not heard any journalist report that they’ve approached the Reserve Bank  –  or the Board or the Minister – for comment on the report and the Bank-specific results.   But such questions need to be asked, and if the Bank simply refuses to respond or engage that in itself would be (sadly) telling.

But a reader drew to my attention that Hamish Rutherford of Stuff has indeed approached the Bank.  And got answers.

Adrian Orr, the new governor of the Reserve Bank, has written to the chief executives and chairs of New Zealand’s banks alerting them to a damning report fed by their anonymised comments.

An improbable star of New Zealand finance, Orr, 55, started in the role on March 27, arriving at a central bank which he acknowledges is under fire.

“This place is a diamond, but it needs significant polishing in places,” Orr said in an interview in the Reserve Bank headquarters.

“We need to think much harder about how we behave, how we roll, how we explain, how we do things. That’s a cultural challenge for the bank.”

and

As well as posting the comments of the report on the Reserve Bank’s internal intranet, Orr had written to bank bosses with the message that: “Hey, this doesn’t print well. We hear you. We need to do something about it.”

He expected that writing the letter and making public statements would elicit “free, unsolicited advice about how this place can do better”.

That is an excellent start: fronting and recognising the issue, to the public, to staff, and to the heads of regulated entities (people who completed the survey).

I’ve been critical enough of the Bank –  and have offered plenty of unsolicited advice as to how the place can be improved (by law and by culture/performance).  I’ve also been a little sceptical of Orr, prior to him taking up the role.   But this is an excellent start.  It is only a start of course, and perhaps he really had no choice but to adopt such an approach in response to feedback so dire.  And actions will need to follow, to change future outcomes. and that will take time and lot of commitment.   But I’m not going to grudge him praise today.

Well done, Governor.

 

Economic growth within environmental limits

That was the title of a speech David Parker gave a couple of weeks ago.  Parker is, as you will recall, a man wearing many hats: Minister for the Environment, Associate Minister of Finance, Minister for Trade and Export Growth, and Attorney-General.  Since he was speaking to a seminar organised by the Resource Management Law Association, this speech looked like it might touch on all his areas of portfolio responsibility.

In passing, I’ll note that he clearly doesn’t live in Wellington.  He introduces his speech lamenting that New Zealand had just had its hottest summer on record.  Most Wellingtonians –  no matter how liberal (indeed, I recently heard an academic working on climate issues make exactly this point) – revelled in a summer that for once felt almost like those the rest of New Zealand normally enjoys.   The sea water was even enjoyably swimmable not just bracing or “refreshing”.

But the focus of his speech is on economic growth.

First he highlights some of New Zealand’s underperformance.

New Zealand has enjoyed relatively strong nominal economic growth over recent years, bolstered by strong commodity prices, population growth and tourism. More inputs, mostly people, have been added into the economy but, with population growth stripped out, per capita growth has been poor at about 1 per cent per annum.

That underperformance has been the story of decades now.   And poor as the growth in per capita real GDP has been, productivity growth –  real GDP per hour worked –  has been worse.  In one particular bad period, over the last five years or so, labour productivity growth has been close to zero (around 0.2-0.3 per cent per annum on average).

Parker is obviously aware of this, beginning his next paragraph “we also have a productivity problem”, but seems more than a little confused about the nature of the issue.

Capital has been misallocated, including into speculative asset classes such as rental housing, rather than into growing our points of comparative advantage.

But…….your government (rightly) keeps telling us that too few houses have been built, laments increases in rents etc.   If we are going to have anything like the rate of population growth we’ve run over recent decades (let alone the last few years) ideally more real resources would be devoted to house-building, not less.  Simply changing the ownership of existing houses doesn’t divert real resources from anything else, or even use material amount of real resources.

The Minister goes on

We aim to diversify our exports and markets as we move from volume to value. We want to change investment signals so more capital goes towards the productive economy rather than unproductive speculation.  Where we need immigration, it will be more targeted.

That last sentence sounds promising, even tantalising.  But it doesn’t seem consistent with the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, with Labour Party policy on immigration, or with the (in)action of the government on immigration policy to date.     Our large-scale non-citizen immigration programme runs on unchanged, complemented by the big increases in recent years in the numbers here on short-term work visas.    A reduced rate of population growth would reduce the extent to which real resources needed to be devoted to meet the –  real and legitimate –  needs of a fast-growing population.

The Minister also makes a bold claim

I am an experienced CEO and company director. I know from experience that we can achieve economic, export and productivity growth within environmental limits.

No doubt, as absolute statements, those claims are true. But surely the relevant question is “how much?”     After all, the message Labour and the Greens were running in the election campaign was that what apparent economic success there had been in recent years was built on “raping and pillaging” the environment –  water pollution, offshore oil exploration, emissions etc.   And yet, as the Minister notes, even that “economic success” didn’t add up to much: weak per capita GDP growth, almost non-existent productivity growth, no progress in closing the gaps to the rest of the advanced world.  And what of exports?

exports 2018The past 15 years have been pretty dreadful, and the last time the export share of the economy was less than it was in the March 2017 year was the year to March 1976 –  back in the days when (a) export prices had plummeted, and (b) the economy was ensnared in import protection, artifically reducing both exports and imports (our openness to the world more generally).

In the Minister’s own words

But economic management over recent years has put pressure on our social wellbeing and our environment. 

So how, we might wonder, is a greater emphasis on environmental protection going to be consistent with the economic growth, and the exports and productivity growth that David Parker says the government aspires to?

As Minister for Economic Development and for Trade and Export Growth, my priorities reflect the reality that our economic success will be underpinned by a more productive, sustainable, competitive and internationally-connected New Zealand.

It is great to see growth in the value of output from our productive sectors. The Government wants to work with them to ensure that the right conditions are in place for firms to thrive and trade, and that we maximise the value of the goods we produce, and encourage high-quality investment in New Zealand. We want our sectors and regions to realise their full potential.

Economic growth and trade helps us create a greater number of sustainable jobs with higher wages and an improved standard of living for all New Zealanders.

However, the Government is clear that economic growth cannot continue to be at the cost of the environment. This is not idealism: it is grounded in common sense. Protecting our environment safeguards our economy in the long term – our country has built its economy and reputation on our natural capital.

I’m not arguing against improving environmental standards, perhaps especially around fresh water.  Improvements in the environment are typically seen as a normal good: as we get richer we want (and typically get) more of it.  But those gains usually come at some (direct) economic cost.    Major change isn’t just wished into existence.

In some places, perhaps, these changes are easier than in others.  If the tradables sector of your economy is, in any case, in a transition  away from heavy industry to, say, financial or business services (perhaps the UK experience), you are naturally moving from industries that might otherwise tend to pollute heavily towards those that don’t.  And farming –  and land-based industries –  might be a small part of the economy anyway.

But this is New Zealand.  And in New Zealand probably 85 per cent of all our exports are natural-resource based, and total services exports (even including tourism) are no higher as a share of GDP than they were 15 or 20 year ago.  Not very many new industries seem to find it economic to both develop here, and then remain here.   We –  and the Minister –  might wish it were otherwise, but up to now it hasn’t been.  Instead, what export growth we’ve had has been in industries where the government is often –  and perhaps rightly –  concerned about the environmental side-effects.

In his speech, the Minister declares that as Minister for the Environment improving the quality of freshwater is his “number one priority”.  I might have hoped that fixing the urban planning laws was at least up there, but lets grant him his priority for now.    How does he envisage bringing about change?

In environmental matters there are only three ways to change the future – education, regulation and price. Of these the most important for water is regulation

And regulation comes at a cost, reducing the competitiveness of firms and industries that are no longer free to do as they previously did.  The best presumption then has to be that future growth in affected sectors will be less than previously, and less than it would otherwise have been.  Sometimes, regulatory and tax initiatives spark brilliant new technologies enabling industries to move to a whole new level.  But you can’t count on that.  You have to work on the assumption that regulation costs.  Those costs might be worth bearing, but you shouldn’t pretend they aren’t there.

The same will, presumably, go for including agriculture in the emissions trading system, however gradually.   Relative to the past, firms facing such a price will no longer be as competitive as they otherwise would have been.    And experts tell us that as yet there are few technologies for effectively reducing animal emissions –  other than having fewer animals.

And then, of course, there are the direct bans.  The ban on new offshore oil exploration permits hadn’t been announced when the Minister gave his speech, but it will –  by explicit design –  reduce output in the exploration sector and, over time, in the domestic production of oil and gas.    It might be –  as some of the government’s acolytes argue – “the thing to do”, “leading the way”, “this generation’s nuclear-free moment” [that one really doesn’t persuade if you thought the Lange government’s gesture was a mistake too], but it must come at an economic cost to New Zealanders.  An economy totally reliant on the ability to skilfully exploit its natural resources, consciously and deliberately chooses to leave some chunk of those –  size unknown –  untapped.

Again, over the course of the last 45 years –  the period of that exports chart –  we’ve had a lot of oil and gas development.  All else equal, our economic performance can only be set back without it – not perhaps this year, or next, but over time.  And it all adds up.

Reading through to the end of the Minister’s speech there is simply no credible story for how he, or the government, expects to be able to do all these things and still see some transformation in the outlook for per capita GDP growth, or growth in productivity or exports.  Indeed, there is nothing there to explain why the outlook won’t be worsened by the sorts of initiatives –  each perhaps worthwhile in their own terms.

It might be different if the government was willing to do something serious about immigration policy, rather than just carrying on with the bipartisan “big New Zealand” strategy.   When natural resources are a crucial part of your economy –  and everyone accepts they still are in New Zealand –  then adding ever more people, by policy initiative, to a fixed quantity of natural resource is a straightforward recipe for depleting the stock of resources per capita, and thus spreading ever more thinly the income that flows from those natural resources.

It is pretty basic stuff: Norway wouldn’t be so much richer per capita than the UK –  both producing oil and gas from the North Sea –  if Norway had 65 million people.  And if Norway decided to get out of the oil and gas business –  leaving underground a big part of their natural resource endowment –  they’d be crazy to drive up their population anyway.    But that is exactly the thrust of what the New Zealand government is doing between:

  • what is aspires to do on water,
  • its ambitious emissions targets, in a country with very high marginal abatement costs, and
  • the ban on new oil and gas exploration permits

even as it keeps on targeting more non-citizen migrants (per capita) than almost any other country on the planet, and as the export share of GDP has been under downward pressure anyway.

It is not as if there is a compelling alternative in which export industries based on other than natural resources are thriving, boosted immensely by the infusion of top-end global talent, in ways that might make us think that natural resource industries could easily be dispensed with and a rapidly rising population was putting us on a path to a more prosperoous, productive, and environmentally-friendly future.  Its been a dream, or an aspiration, of some for decades.  But there is barely a shred of evidence of anything like that happening in this most remote of locations.

It might all be a lot different if the government was willing to step aside from the “big New Zealand” mentality, or put aside for a moment fears of absurd comparisons with Donald Trump –  recall that (a) our immigration is almost all legal, and (b) residence approvals here (per capita) are three times those in the US (under Clinton/Bush/Obama).

If the government were to move to phase in a residence approvals target of 10000 to 15000 per annum (the per capita rate in the US), with supporting changes to work visa policies, we’d pretty quickly see quite a different –  and better –  economic climate.   We’d no longer have to devote so much resource (labour) to simply building to support a growing population –  houses, roads [rail if you must], schools, shops, offices.  All else equal our interest rates –  typically the highest in the advanced world –  would be quite a bit lower, and the real exchange rate could be expected to fall a long way.  I don’t think there is a mention in the whole of David Parker’s speech of the real exchange rate, but it is a key element in coping successfully with the sorts of transitions the Minister says he aspires to.   Farmers, for example, will be able to compete, even with tougher water regulations, even with the inclusion of agriculture in the ETS.  And more industries in other sector will find it remunerative to develop here, and remain based here.  We’d actually have a chance of meeting both environmental and economic objectives instead of –  as the government would see it –  having consistently failed on both counts.

Last year, I ran several posts (including this column) making the point that rapid population growth –  mostly the consequence of immigration policy –  was the single biggest factor behind the continued growth in, and high level of, carbon emissions in New Zealand over recent decades.  In other words, we had made a rod for our own back and then –  through the process of driving up the real exchange rate –  made it even more difficult and costly to abate those emissions without materially undermining our standard of living.  OIA requests established that neither MBIE nor the Ministry for the Environment had even explored the issue.

It wasn’t a popular view, but I stand by the argument.  In a country still very heavily dependent on natural resources, if you care about the environment, and about “doing our bit” on carbon emissions, it is simply crazy to keep on actively driving up the population.  Doubly so, if you think you can do so and still improve productivity, export growth, and overall economic performance.  The Productivity Commission is due to release soon its draft report on making the transition to a low emissions economy.  I hope they have been willing to recognise, and explicitly address, the integral connection to immigration policy in the specific circumstances New Zealand faces.  Not wishing to confront the connection –  an awkward one for the pro-immigration people on the left in particular –  won’t make it go away.

Visiting economists opine on NZ

Lots of people, even abroad, look at New Zealand’s economy.   For example, there are ratings agencies selling a commercial product to clients, and there are investment funds putting their own and clients’ money at risk.   And then there are the government agencies; notably the IMF and the OECD.

Every year or so, a small team of IMF economists come to visit for their Article IV assessment.  New Zealand isn’t very important to the Fund: we aren’t systemically important, we don’t borrow money from the Fund, and we aren’t even part of any of the country groupings with traditional clout at the Fund (eg the EU or euro-area). And the New Zealand story is complicated –  there aren’t other countries much like New Zealand to compare us against and learn from, and especially not in the Asia-Pacific region (the department of the IMF that covers New Zealand).  There isn’t much incentive for the Fund to spend much time on New Zealand, or to devote their best people to New Zealand issues, or to do much other than pay polite deference to the preferences of whoever happens to hold office (bureaucratic and political) at the time, spout some conventional verities favouring smart government intervention, while burying any scepticism in very careful drafting.    We might deserve better than we get –  after all, we are a member just like all the other countries – but to expect better would be to let wishful thinking triumph over (very) long experience.

But because the IMF’s report on New Zealand is published, and because the mission chief makes themselves available to the local media, the IMF team’s views tends to get some local media coverage.  The latest report – in this case the three page concluding remarks from the just-completed mission –  came out yesterday.

As has become traditional, they tend to laud New Zealand’s cyclical economic performance

New Zealand has enjoyed a solid economic expansion in recent years. Construction and historically high net migration have been important growth drivers. Accommodative monetary policy, increasing terms of trade, and strong external demand from Asia have supported activity more broadly.

As it happens, on the IMF’s own numbers, growth in real per capita GDP in New Zealand over the last five years has been nothing spectacular –  among advanced countries we’ve been the median country and the advanced world hasn’t done that well.  And nowhere in the report do they even allude to the fact that almost all that New Zealand growth has resulted from more inputs, and that productivity growth has been near-zero for much of the last five years.  From an international organisation that emphasises the importance of open trade etc, there is also no mention at all of the fact that exports and imports have been shrinking as a share of GDP.

They also tell us that “the baseline economic outlook is favourable”.   Perhaps, but their own numbers say something a bit different.  Here is a chart of the IMF’s own forecasts for growth in real per capita GDP for the five years from 2017 to 2022.

IMF forecasts

Not only do they forecast New Zealand’s growth rate to slow (whereas the median country’s growth rate is forecast to accelerate) but on these projections we are expected to have one of the slowest (per capita) growth rates of any advanced country over the next five years.  Perhaps there is some productivity miracle embedded in these numbers –  the IMF doesn’t produce the breakdown of their growth forecasts –  but it looks as though they expect another half decade when we drift a bit further behind.  Strangely, none of that showed up in ysterday’s statement.

What of macro policy (monetary and fiscal)?

Here is what they have to say on monetary policy

Current monetary policy is appropriately expansionary. The policy settings are robust to current uncertainties. A precautionary further easing would raise risks of a steeper tightening if inflationary pressures emerged sooner than expected, given that the economy appears to have been operating close to capacity for some time. On the other hand, a premature tightening could prolong price setting below the mid-point of the target range, given persistently low inflation in recent years.

But this is pretty vacuous.   Getting policy wrong is, rather obviously, a bad thing.   But it is nonsense to suggest that current policy is “robust to current uncertainties”.  After all, if inflation ends up staying persistently low,  then not to have eased earlier would have risked inflation expectations falling away, and more people being unemployed than necessary.  All they are really saying is “we believe –  as we have for years, wrongly –  that inflation is about to start rising back to the target midpoint, and if so current policy will prove to have been appropriate”.   But this was the same organisation that only a few years ago was cheerleading for the ill-fated 2014 Wheeler tightening.

(And one might have hoped that the IMF – in principle able to take a longer-term perspectives –  might have been pointing to the risks, of rather limited monetary policy capacity, in the next recession and encouraging the authorities to be taking steps now.)

What of fiscal policy?

The strong fiscal position provides space to accommodate the needs from strong economic and population growth. Compared to the time of the last Article IV Consultation, the updated baseline expenditure path already incorporates higher infrastructure spending and new growth-friendly measures, as discussed below. The continued political commitment to budget discipline and a medium-term debt anchor in New Zealand is welcome. With the country’s strong fiscal position, there is no need for faster debt reduction beyond that outlined in the 2017 Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update. Stronger structural revenues, such as from higher-than-expected population growth, should be used to increase spending on infrastructure and other measures that would strengthen the economy’s growth potential.

This paragraph just exemplifies how the IMF has  –  at least for tame untroublesome countries –  ended up too often as a mouthpiece rehearsing the preferred lines of whoever holds office at the time.   Contrast the tone with these lines from last year’s statement.

Current budget plans appropriately imply a counter-cyclical fiscal stance going forward. Stronger-than-expected revenue for cyclical reasons should be used to reduce public debt.

With not a hint that anything fundamental has changed to justify the change in advice, except the government……

The Article IV mission still seems as mixed up as ever on housing and associated risks.  They’ve been enthusiastic supporters of LVR controls –  never even alluding to the efficiency or distributional costs – as if the basic issue in the housing market had been inappropriate credit availability.    Thus they can write

Household debt-related vulnerabilities are expected to decrease following recent stabilization. Macroprudential policy intervention contributed to slowing household debt growth, and momentum in house prices moderated last year. While housing demand fundamentals remain robust under the baseline outlook, the soft landing in the housing market should continue, reflecting increasing supply and, in the medium term, gradually rising domestic interest rates.

But then later in the report they talk at some length about the various measures –  some concrete, some (at this stage) still promises – the government is planning to affect the housing market.   Perhaps the IMF doesn’t believe those measures will actually do much, in aggregate, but there is no discussion at all about how fixing the housing market would (desirably) actually lower house and urban land prices.  Stress tests the Reserve Bank has undertaken suggest banks can cope with big price falls, but the possibility of such an adjustment doesn’t even rate a mention in this statement.

The Fund is clearly not enthusiastic about the government’s foreign house buyer ban (emphasis added)

The proposed ban in the draft amendment to the Overseas Investment Act is a capital flow management measure (CFM) under the IMF’s Institutional View on capital flows. The measure is unlikely to be temporary or targeted, and foreign buyers seem to have played a minor role in New Zealand’s residential real estate markets recently. The broad housing policy agenda above, if fully implemented, would address most of the potential problems associated with foreign buyers on a less discriminatory basis.

But, as I noted, in the unlikely event that a broad housing policy agenda was fully implemented, it would be likely to lower house prices considerably, which surely should rate a mention from the IMF?

The IMF doesn’t know a lot about structural policies –  ones that might actually make a difference to productivity (indeed, in New Zealand’s case it is either unaware –  or too polite to mention –  pressing productivity failures).  But that doesn’t stop them devoting a fair chunk of a short report to what they call “Supporting Productivity and Inclusive Growth”.   Here, I think it is fair to say, they aren’t entirely convinced.

Thus

The proposed minimum wage increases out to 2020 could help ease income inequality.

But do notice the “could” in that sentence.   And the Fund certainly doesn’t seem to buy the story sometimes heard here, suggesting that higher minimum wages will raise productivity (beyond any averaging effect of simply pricing out the lowest skilled people).     And

Free tertiary-level education and training for at least one year could boost human capital.

Notice the “could” again.  And

Tax reform could play an important role in shifting incentives toward broader business investment.

Again…not a great of confidence that these things “would” make a difference.  Then again, there is little sign that the IMF team really understands the issues.

There is also a “should” –  highlighting, diplomatically, something that isn’t happening

The new Provincial Growth Fund should ensure project selection that helps regions to benefit from income gains more in line with the major urban centers.

But even that implies that the IMF see the PGF as primarily an income distribution tool, not one  –  as the government would have us believe –  of lifting the underlying economic performance of the regions.  But scarily, the IMF seems signed on to the idea of the PGF

It can also be an appropriate tool to relieve pressures on the major urban areas by encouraging movement of population into the regions.

It would be interesting to see the IMF’s analysis justifying government interventions to try to encourage people out of the cities.  Ideally, people will flow towards economic opportunities……which either haven’t been there in some of the regions the government worries about, or which the government is in the process of taking away (eg oil and gas exploration).

There is just one element of this structural agenda the IMF is sure of, as both the IMF and OECD have been for years.

The agenda appropriately focuses on lifting R&D spending in New Zealand to 2 percent of GDP. An R&D tax credit, if well designed, would be an efficient instrument to support R&D spending in the business sector.

Note that change of wording: “would”.   I guess such a scheme “will” put money in the pockets of some firms.  But whether it encourages more worthwhile R&D –  and surely the most worthwhile R&D must already be being done –  is another matter.   And there is no sign that the IMF has ever considered what structural reasons there might be why firms in New Zealand –  or considering being in New Zealand – haven’t found it profitable to undertake more R&D spending.   Astonishingly, writing about in a country with a real exchange rate persistently out of line with widening productivity differentials, there is no mention of the real exchange rate at all.  And if anything is IMF territory, surely it would be exchange rates?

In the end, these days I wouldn’t think better or worse of a policy position because a visiting IMF team favoured it, or opposed it.  After all, on macro policy quite possibly the position they hold today will be reversed next year (as we’ve seen happen on fiscal policy).  On other things, they show little sign of having thought hard about the New Zealand issues.  That’s a shame, but it seems to be a fact of life now.