The PRC and New Zealand: an Australian perspective

In response to my post yesterday about the Asia NZ Foundation roundtable on foreign interference/influence in New Zealand, I received this comment, which I’m elevating into a post of its own because of its source, and because otherwise only a small number of readers would now see it.

When officials are assuring you everything is under control, that’s the moment you know that everything is not under control. As a long-term New Zealand watcher I am deeply disturbed to see how the political and bureaucratic establishment in Wellington wants the problem of Chinese interference in domestic politics to be swept under the carpet.

The idea that the Australian debate on this topic is ‘unhelpful’ is simply ridiculous. Successive Australian governments have ignored the problem but now it has become so painfully obvious that Canberra has had no choice other than to take a stand and set some limits on Chinese Communist Party interference. I believe that a substantial reason why Canberra acted was because of the public focus on the problem.

China will continue to suborn the NZ political system unless your Government is prepared to push back. If the problem is not addressed in time this will become a serious problem for the NZ-Australia bilateral relationship.

My suggestion is that the Australian and NZ Prime Ministers should meet with their intelligence agency heads and have a frank, closed-door discussion about the extent of the problem of Chinese interference in both our countries. We can actually help each other here.

Pretending there is no problem, or failing even to utter Beijing’s name isn’t sophisticated statecraft, its just a failure to come to grips with a major problem for both our countries.

The comment is from Peter Jennings, who has been Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute since 2012.

Peter has worked at senior levels in the Australian Public Service on defence and national security. Career highlights include being Deputy Secretary for Strategy in the Defence Department (2009-12); Chief of Staff to the Minister for Defence (1996-98) and Senior Adviser for Strategic Policy to the Prime Minister (2002-03).

I’ll leave his much-more-informed comment as it stands, just observing of his suggestion of a meeting of our two Prime Ministers etc, that for such an event to occur there would have to be a willingness and desire among political leaders on this side of the Tasman to acknowledge and confront the issue.  In fact, what we see in public is a desire to minimise, or to deny that there are, any serious issues, and to refuse to deal even with issues in plain sight.

Regressivity, petrol taxes, and ministerial PR

Someone around home mentioned this morning that there was a confused article on the Herald website about the progressivity (or otherwise) of the fuel tax increase.   I didn’t pay much attention until I read the paper over lunch, when I was a bit staggered by what I found.

This was the centrepiece chart

fuel tax

The line of argument from opponents has been that the fuel tax increase will fall more heavily on low income people.   But according to the Herald’s journalist, channelling Phil Twyford.

 in a startling revelation, the ministers claim that the wealthier a household is, the more it is likely to pay for petrol. They say the wealthiest 10 per cent of households will pay $7.71 per week more for petrol. Those with the lowest incomes will pay $3.64 a week more.

I still don’t understand what the journalist finds startling.  It is hardly surprising that higher income households spend more on petrol than lower income households do.  They spend more on most things.

But he goes on to claim

This is a complete reversal of the most common complaint about fuel taxes, which is that they are “regressive”. That means, the critics say, they affect poor people more than wealthy people.

The suggestion that these data are some sort of “complete reversal” of the claim the tax is regressive is itself just nonsense.  One would need to look at the impact of the fuel tax increase as a proportion of income.  And households in the top decile earn about ten times as much as households in the bottom decline, according to the same Household Expenditure Survey.

So I went and got the income by decline data for the June 2017 year from the Household Expenditure Survey.  The income data is presented in range form, so for each decile I used the average of the high and low incomes for that decile.  And then I took the Auckland fuel tax increases numbers in the right hand column of the table above, and calculated them as a annual percentage of annual household income by decline.  (The income numbers are for 2017, and the fuel tax increases phase in to 2020, so the absolute percentages will be different –  incomes will have risen – but what won’t change materially is that high income households earn a lot more than low income ones.)

fuel tax by decile

On the numbers the Herald themselves used, apparently supplied by the Ministry of Transport, the  direct burden of the fuel tax increase will fall much more heavily on low income people than on those further up the income scale.   The extremely high number for the lowest decile masks how significant these effects are even for other groups: the second and third deciles of household income will see an increase twice as large, as a percentage of income, as those in the 9th decile.

I’m driving to Auckland later this afternoon for a wedding, and planning to get out again on Sunday without having paid the increased Auckland fuel levy.

What the Bank tells you ten times, still isn’t true

“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.”

(Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark)

This was only the new Governor’s second OCR announcement, but the pattern seems to be getting quickly re-established.

This was the Governor in May

The emerging capacity constraints are projected to see New Zealand’s consumer price inflation gradually rise to our 2 percent annual target.

And this was the Governor today

inflation is expected to gradually rise to our 2 percent annual target, resulting from capacity pressures.

But this was the former (but unlawful) “acting Governor” in March

Over the medium term, CPI inflation is forecast to trend upwards towards the midpoint of the target range

And this was Spencer in his first pronouncement last September

Non-tradables inflation remains moderate but is expected to increase gradually as capacity pressure increases, bringing headline inflation to the midpoint of the target range over the medium term.

And this was the former Governor a year ago

Non-tradables and wage inflation remain moderate but are expected to increase gradually.  This will bring future headline inflation to the midpoint of the target band over the medium term

In one form or another, in fact, it was the story he told throughout his five year term.

And yet it just hasn’t happened.  And, as I illustrated the other day, market prices still don’t suggest it is expected to happen.

In the real world, saying it over and over again doesn’t make it any more likely to happen.   It might happen nonetheless –  there is a great deal of uncertainty about macroeconomics – but the Reserve Bank still isn’t giving us a compelling story as to why, having been wrong for years, we should now believe they have it right.  As I noted at the time of the May MPS, those doubts were only increased by his enthusiastic endorsement of his predecessors’ record

Perhaps even more startling, was his response when asked a question in which it was noted that Graeme Wheeler had failed to hit the inflation target midpoint, and Orr was asked whether he would be happy to be judged on his performance against that metric.  That seemed to set the Governor off in defence of his predecessors, claiming that the economy was in near-ideal cyclical sweet spot, and that he could not imagine a better place to start from as Governor.  A bit later he chipped in that he thought the Bank had been doing a ‘remarkable” job in forecasting core inflation –  a variable that hasn’t been anywhere near the explicit 2 per cent target since that target was put in place by Bill English almost six years ago. 

One can’t expect a full story in a one page OCR announcement such as today’s, but there wasn’t anything much more compelling in the MPS either.  And three months into his term we have not had a single on-the-record speech from the Governor about monetary policy, which is still his prime statutory function.     Lots of chatty greetings, but not a great deal of substance.

And all in a global climate that seems to be getting much more hostile, and risky.

But it isn’t inconsistent with the Bank’s Statement of Intent the other day.  In it, we are told that

 we will promote a deeper understanding at the Bank of tikanga Māori and te Reo Māori.

with no obvious connection drawn, that I could see, with anything in the Bank’s statutory mandate.  It will no doubt win the Governor feel-good points with his political masters, as he fights turf battles in the months to come.  But there was still nothing at all on ensuring that the Bank, and New Zealand policymakers more generally, are ready when the next serious recesssion hits –  stuff at the heart of what we have a monetary policy and central bank for.

In his statement today, the Governor included this, largely meaningless, line

The Official Cash Rate (OCR) will remain at 1.75 percent for now. However, we are well positioned to manage change in either direction – up or down – as necessary.

Of course he can move the OCR up or down 50 basis points (to me, the data –  as distinct from the vapourware masquerading as economic forecasts – suggest down).  But the big problem is that if circumstances ever require him to cut the OCR more than say 250 basis points –  and something in excess of 500 basis points has been more normal in serious downturns, here and abroad –  he can’t do it.  He knows it, and the markets know it.       Failure to do anything meaningful to reduce or mitigate those risks, and to communicate those plans to the public and markets, risks accentuating any downturn when it comes.

(I’ll be away for the next few days, but will come back next week to write about the Bank’s speech earlier this week on digital currency, perhaps best summarised as “how best to serve the banks, rather than the public”.)

 

Foreign government influence, the PRC, and the Wellington establishment

Somewhat to my surprise, a few weeks ago an invitation dropped into my email inbox.   It was from the Asia New Zealand Foundation – a (almost entirely) government-funded entity, staffed at senior levels by former MFAT people, with a mission

to build New Zealanders’ knowledge and understanding of Asia. 

These are the people who occasionally run public surveys, the results of which are marketed to bewail how little people know about Asia.  I managed to get all the latest questions right –  including which (of 4) Asian countries the Mekong river didn’t flow through –  and did surprisingly well on one of their harder quizzes.  But I still can’t name which English counties the Severn river runs through, all the countries the Rhine flows through, or all the states the Mississippi runs through or between.  I don’t feel  particularly disqualified as a result.

The invitation?

You are invited to attend a roundtable discussion being hosted at the Asia New Zealand Foundation on the conversation around foreign influence in New Zealand.

It went on

After observing the unhelpful polarity in the discussion in Australia, the Foundation has given some thought to how it could support a constructive conversation in New Zealand, namely one which:

– encourages expert voices to speak freely;
– sets a constructive tone for challenging these assessments and perspectives, without acrimony.

It was to be what they described as a “Track 1.5” event (in this world, Track 1 apparently involves official to official dialogue, and Track 2 involves non-government people talking to counterparts, but this forum would involve both).   Senior officials would attend, and speak, while as for the others

this event will involve up to 20 members of the business, media and academic community who are thinking strategically about this issue.

We were told that “the Government is keen to hear participants’  views” on issues such as

How can government and others talk about foreign interference, and its response, in a way that is constructive and sends coherent messages to a wide range of stakeholders (ie government agencies, public, business, international partners and state actors)?

I was a bit surprised to be invited.  I don’t lay claim to any particular China expertise, but I am interested in New Zealand policy and politics, and I suppose I had been a little dogged (perhaps even annoying, including to some others who were on the invite list).  So, with a little trepidation and low expectations, I accepted the invitation.  Expectations were low because in the entire document that accompanied the invitation the People’s Republic of China didn’t rate an explicit mention, and because if anything the focus seemed to designed to be about all being nice to each other.

the purpose is to bring different voices to the table on what is a challenging but important issue for New Zealand – and to discuss how we would like to engage with each other moving forward.

The event was held under Chatham House rules.  And since they were rather sensitive on the point (even sending out a later reminder about letter and spirit), this is the explicit rule this post is written under

The Chatham House Rule will apply to this roundtable. This means that participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed. There will be no note or output of the discussions.

Of the attendees, perhaps all I can say is that it was a very Wellington audience –  a description, and a flavour, rather than a criticism.

Every though everyone in the room knew that meeting wouldn’t have been held were it not for the issues around the People’s Republic of China, there was a rather desperate desire apparent to avoid singling out the PRC.   Indeed, the meeting opened with a statement about wanting to “talk as much about the risk as about any risk actor”, and that together with a statement near the end about not talking about the “who” but the “what” tended to bracket the discussion.

We heard that the Prime Minister had said publicly that New Zealand had experienced Russian cyber-attacks, we heard reference to Russian use of chemical weapons, about “fake news” and RT, we heard about the US pulling out of the Paris climate agreement (which, last time I looked, was their perfect right) and about questionable new US tariffs.   On the other hand, National MP Jian Yang –  former member of the Chinese intelligence system, Communist Party member, someone who admits that he misrepresented his past to New Zealand immigration authorities because Beijing told him to –  would have been mentioned not at all, except that I mentioned him (to note the omission) late in the discussion.   Trade ties –  and the heightened exposure some New Zealand entities have created for themselves, knowing the risks, and in turn putting increased pressure on the New Zealand government to keep quiet –  also barely got a mention.   Specifics quickly get awkward and personal.

Speakers were keen to convince us that officialdom was right up with the play (the issue being “owned” overall by DPMC), and working hand in hand with our Five Eyes partners,  They weren’t, we were told, “naive and unprepared” but rather actively engaged in “detecting and countering interference” –  apparently some overseas partners are even envious of some of the telecommunications legislation implemented here a few years ago (an observation that should probably leave New Zealanders a bit nervous).  Any suggestion of a threat to our membership of Five Eyes is, we were told, “spurious”.  I presume that means “false”.

I guess I came away with the impression that officials think they are more or less on top of the outright illegal stuff.   One hopes they are correct.

My own concerns tend to be with stuff that is legal, or just overlooked.   And where political cravenness, fear, and good dose of pursuing short-term opportunities as if oblivious to the character of those being dealt with, seem to matter as much as any active direct PRC intervention here.  Stuff like, for example, the way our major political party presidents laud Xi Jinping or the CCP, or the way a major party campaigns with a Xi Jinping slogan, or the refusal of anyone prominent to ever say anything critical of the PRC in public.  Or the willingness of our public universities to take PRC funding for culture/language learning, with PRC controls over the sort of people allowed to teach (Falun Gong adherents need not apply, nor those pro-democracy, those favouring respect for Taiwan’s independence etc).  Or the way our trans-Tasman school of government is in partnership with the Chinese Communist Party.  Last week our political leaders went back and forward over what to say about the US border/illegal immigrant issues.  The political editor of our largest paper called for our leaders to show we had an “independent foreign policy”.  I’d have thought the treatment of the PRC was more of a test of that one.   South China Sea anyone?  Taiwan –  a prosperous democratic state increasingly menaced by a power we’ve signed up with in some “fusion of civilisations” vision –  anyone?

Or one might look for any sense of real concern for our own ethnic Chinese citizens –  especially those who despise the regime, or have few/no modern ties to the PRC –  whose media, whose cultural associations etc are increasingly in the thrall of regime-friendly United Front entities.  Or concern for the New Zealanders of Chinese ethnicity who face threats to families back in the PRC if they do make a stand, or speak out, on anything.

I’m not suggesting there were no direct references to the PRC at the roundtable, but it seemed awkward, rather than any sort of open or really honest conversation.  I’m sure everyone there knows the character of the PRC regime –  at home, abroad, and here.  But…it was clearly awkward to talk about, and no one wanted to name the PRC as one of the most awful regimes now on the planet –  between its external expansionism, defiance of international law, attempts to rewrite history, attempts to use diasporas to serve its purposes, domestic concentration camps (much of the province of Xinjiang), political and religious repression, organ harvesting, and so on, the Nazi Germany equivalent of our day.  If you won’t name the character of the bad actor, you are unlikely to be serious about resisting or responding.   It is hardly as if the goals of the PRC/CCP, including through the United Front organisations in (various) countries like ours, is any great secret.

Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised in a couple of areas.  There was clear unease, from people in a good position to know, about the role of large donations to political parties from ethnic minority populations –  often from cultures without the political tradition here (in theory, if not always observed in practice in recent decades) that donations are not about purchasing influence.  One person observed that we had very much the same issues Australia was grappling with (although our formal laws are tighter than the Australian ones).  Of ethnic Chinese donations in particular, the description “truckloads” was used, with a sense that the situation is almost “inherently unhealthy”.   With membership numbers in political parties dropping, and political campaigning getting no less expensive, this ethnic contribution (and associated influence seeking) issue led several participants to note that they had come round to favouring serious consideration of state funding of political parties.   I remain sceptical of that approach –  especially the risk of locking in the position of the established parties, or locking out parties the establishment doesn’t like – but it was sobering to hear.

There was also unease about the suborning of former politicians (jobs after politics), and the suggestion of a need for stand-down periods.  And there was something of a call for more open government engagement on these issues (not, obviously, direct intelligence matters).  One person contrasted the speech a few months ago by the Australian head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, highlighting some of the issues and risks, and the near-silence by our own senior officials and ministers.    But here I suspect there was a bifurcation between those who felt the government should be on the front foot playing down the issues, and those who felt it should be more open in recognising them and engaging in debate with New Zealanders about how best we should respond.  Of the taxpayer-funded China Council’s efforts in this area –  attempting to minimise or trivialise the issue – one participant observed that they had been “unsophisticated and unhelpful”.

I guess my sense was that few of the people at the roundtable were at all comfortable participating in wider public or political debate: many were or are bureaucrats, not accustomed to visibility or audibility.  And many of the non-government people had business or similar interests that would make speaking out difficult, and potentially threatening to finances and professional opportunities.  There wasn’t even much sign of robust debate around the table of the meeting itself –  occasional awkward observations typically being left to stand, with no response or debate (although this may partly have reflected time constraints).

Many seemed to feel a real distaste for the nature of the debate in Australia over the last 12 to 18 months.   One discussant pushed back, arguing that what was needed was a robust public debate, not just involving subject experts, but citizens, and that –  moreover –  some heat was often an inseparable part of shedding light, and that arguably the Australians had done the debate better.  I’m in that latter camp.   On the other side, someone plaintively quoted one of the participants in the Australian debate as accepting that he had occasionally overdone things on Twitter, but surely that is almost in the nature of the medium?   Civility is a considerable virtue, but it isn’t the only one, and sometimes civility and politeness can be a cover for avoiding really confronting issues.  It is fine to quote –  as someone did – the old line about playing the ball not the man, but people are the actors here:

  • Jian Yang, personally, is in our Parliament, is a former member of Chinese military intelligence, did misrepresent his past, is closely associated with the PRC Embassy,
  • Bill English and Simon Bridges (on the one hand) and Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters on the other sit silently by,
  • Chris Finlayson did openly attack Anne-Marie Brady (none of whose significant claims has been overturned or substantively challenged) as some sort of racist xenophobe,
  • Raymond Huo is closely associated with United Front bodies, and did adopt a Xi Jinping slogan for Labour’s campaign among the Chinese community,
  • Peter Goodfellow and Nigel Haworth do laud and magnify Xi Jinping and the PRC,
  • successive foreign and trade ministers make up stuff about our economic reliance on the PRC, and keep very very quiet whenever any awkward issues arise.

No one makes these people do any of these things. They choose to.   There are explanations perhaps, but not justifications.

In the end, I appreciated the invitation to the roundtable, and I did learn a few things.  But it didn’t leave me really any more confident than I had gone in that the establishment was at all keen or willing to have New Zealand stand up and do things differently, not just safeguarding our formal institutions (which probably aren’t that threatened), but with some self-respect, standing up for the sort of the values countries like our own have long stood for, and which the PRC/CCP is –  in many cases –  the antithesis.   Roosevelt’s four freedoms, and things like that –  on all of which the PRC either falls well short, or seems to simply regard them as “not applicable here”.

Then again, the real issue isn’t advisers per se, but the reluctance of successive elected governments to do or say anything that might prove awkward with Beijing.  Implied threats  – to individuals or to the economy (economic coercion and the like) –  are interference, even if there is nothing direct for intelligence agencies and the like to pick up on, and even if –  as in the case of economic coercion –  politicians are often excessively fearful.  Political donations may be part of that story, I don’t think they are anything like the entire picture.  And yet none of that was discussed.

 

 

Some more real exchange rates

A couple of recent posts have highlighted the really significant sustained increase in New Zealand’s real exchange rate.  I illustrated that with this chart

ULC jun 18

which shows the OECD’s relative unit labour costs measure.

Measures such as this, working back from a nominal exchange rate index, tend to be quite cyclical (around whatever longer-term trends are underway).  But there is another approach to the real exchange rate, an internal measure that looks at developments in the prices of non-tradables relative to the prices of tradables.    A rise in the ratio of those two sets of prices suggests, all else equal, that the tradables sector of the economy is becoming relatively less competitive.

Unfortunately, good long-term series of tradables and non-tradables prices are pretty few and far between.  The official series in New Zealand only date back to 1999 (and the Reserve Bank doesn’t publish the earlier versions that we calculated ourselves using highly disaggregated SNZ data).    Here is the chart of that measure of the real exchange rate, and the same derived series for Australia.

internal RER 1

To look at that chart, one might suppose that non-tradables almost always increased in price faster than tradables (although even at the start of the series –  when both countries’ nominal exchange rates were very weak –  there are hints otherwise).

Fortunately, Australia has these data back to 1982.

internal RER 2

For the first 20 years of the series it was fairly flat –  the difference between tradables and non-tradables inflation rates was only around 0.5 per cent per annum.   Since around 2001, the annual difference has been more like 2.5 per cent per annum.   Such differences have come to be taken for granted, but it isn’t a normal state of affairs.

Another way of getting a fix on the internal real exchange rate was suggested a few years ago by former Victoria University academic Geoff Bertram, in his chapter on the modern economy for the New Oxford History of New Zealand.  His measures calculates the real exchange rate as the ratio of the GDP deflator (prices of all the stuff produced in New Zealand) relative to the average of export and import prices.   Stuff that is exported is captured in both the numerator and the denominator, but all the non-tradables are in the numerator only, so that this measure will rise (fall) when non-tradables prices rise faster (slower) than tradables prices.   For New Zealand there are estimates of all the relevant deflators back to 1914.   Here is the resulting chart.

internal RER 3

For 70 years, there was no trend in the series. On average, over that full period tradables prices and non-tradables prices seem to have increased by about the same amount.  The cycles were quite prolonged, but no trend was apparent.   And then everything changed, and the sort of appreciation we’ve seen on this measure over the last 30 years is unlike anything seen before.

What about Australia?  Here is the same chart, going back to 1900.

internal RER 4

Much the same sort of picture –  a flat trend for 80 years, and then a sharp sustained move upwards (although not quite as large a move as that for New Zealand).

(It isn’t a universal pattern: the official US data go back to 1929, and although there has been an increase late in the period, the current level is not even 10 per cent above the previous peak.)

To be honest, I’m not sure quite what is going on in New Zealand and Australia, although the numbers would be consistent with both countries having experienced very weak productivity growth in their non-tradables sector (thus economywide cost increases spill into prices).  In New Zealand, weak productivity growth translated into weak overall economic performance, while in Australia the windfall of huge newly-tapped mineral resources has kept their overall economic performance looking better.  It is, after all, a real income gain.

Export volume growth in the last 30 years as a whole has outstripped the growth in real GDP in both countries, but that margin has been far larger in Australia than in New Zealand.  In Australia, export volume growth over that period was almost twice as fast as real GDP growth.

I noted that even on those internal real exchange rate measures, the increase in New Zealand has been larger than in Australia.     The same thing shows up, much more starkly, with a simple calculation of a New Zealand/Australia real exchange rate, taking the nominal exchange rate and adjusting for inflation differentials.    This chart shows that measure going back to 1914.

rer nzd aud

Again, a reasonably flat trend for 70 years, and then the move up to the new much higher level from the late 1980s.   And this, even though our productivity growth has continued to drift further behind Australia’s.

And for those keen to fall back on terms of trade stories, they don’t help.  This chart shows the terms of trade for New Zealand and for Australia back to the early 20th century.

TOT aus and NZ jun 18

Over 100 years, the two countries’ terms of trade have done much the same thing, ending up almost in an almost identical place.

So Australia was able to bring to market huge new mineral resources, and managed much faster productivity growth than New Zealand, and yet New Zealand has had much the larger real exchange rate appreciation.

Beginning to make inroads on New Zealand’s dismal productivity performance seems almost certain to require getting to the bottom of what has given rise to such an appreciation –  on almost any measure one cares to look at, internal or external.

(Meanwhile our bureaucrats avoid the real issues, while looking busy.  Yesterday I stumbled on this on an MBIE website, touting a new panel of experts –  half academics, a third public service economists –  to help fix businesses.

It’s common for small businesses in New Zealand to be passionate about what they do, but pressed for time. So working “on” the business instead of “in” the business often stays at the bottom of a long to-do list.

Business owners and operators tell us they would love to improve their systems and processes to get better results, and to save time and money. But getting these up and running takes time they just can’t spare.

This lack of time to work “on” the business is one reason why New Zealand’s productivity is comparatively poor. This poor productivity is a problem, whether you want happier workers, bigger profits or a better work/life balance — or a combination of these goals.

To help Kiwi businesses find practical ways to improve their performance, we’ve brought together a panel of experts from New Zealand and around the world, and combined their insights with our own research with small businesses.

I suspect small business owners are often rather busy whichever country they are operating in (high productivity or low), that we are better off assuming that private sector people make the best of their opportunities, and that the answers to the question of why New Zealand now lags so badly behind lie rather more with the politicians and their public service advisers than with the private sector.  Skew the playing field, and it is hard to get a good game.  Perhaps –  as in areas of financial conduct –  the (self-proclaimed) physicians should “heal themselves” (fix things they are directly responsible for) rather than touting their alleged skills in fixing private businesses.  Apart from anything else, there are professionals running their own businesses offering advisory services, and they actually face a market test.)

 

 

 

Inflation bonds and breakevens

I spent a large chunk of Friday interviewing funds managers.  In the course of our conversations, talk turned to the yields on government inflation-indexed bonds (a sensible asset for funds offering indexed pensions) relative to the yields on conventional government bonds.  There are a lot more inflation-indexed government bonds on issue now than there used to be, and I was encouraged to learn that, as a result, bid-ask spreads are also tighter.

The gap between nominal and indexed bond yields is what is known as the “breakeven” inflation rate –  the actual inflation rate that, over the life of the respective bonds, would generate the same return whether one was holding indexed or nominal bonds.   It can be seen as a proxy for market inflation expectations.

As regular readers know, one of my favourite charts is this one, showing the gap between those yields in New Zealand for the last few years.

IIB breakevens June 18

10 years from now is June 2028, so something nearer the average of the two series is at present a reasonable fix on a 10 year inflation breakeven for New Zealand.  But whichever series you use, the numbers have been consistently well below 2 per cent for several years now.  By contrast, at the start of the chart, it looks as though 10 year inflation breakevens were around 2 per cent (10 years ahead then was 2024, so the blue line was the more relevant comparator).

You might expect that a chart like this one would bother the Reserve Bank (paid to keep inflation around 2 per cent).  Instead, they simply ignore it.   Their statements repeatedly claim that inflation expectations are securely anchored at 2 per cent, relying on surveys of a handful of economists.  They simply ignore the indications from market prices.

It isn’t as if what we see in New Zealand is normal.   Here is the chart of US 10 year breakevens for the same period.

US breakevens jun 18

At something a little above 2 per cent, US breakevens are around the US inflation target (expressed in terms of the private consumption deflator, rather than the CPI-  which the bonds are indexed to).

What about other countries?  Courtesy of Fisher Funds, here are a couple of charts.  First the 10 year breakevens for the last year or so.

global breakevens

“DE” here is Germany.  As Fisher noted to us, it seemed a little anomalous that New Zealand 10 year breakevens are lower than those in Germany (although the German economy is one of the stronger in Europe, and they have no domestic monetary policy).

And here are the 20 year breakevens

20 year breakevens

BEI 2035 and BEI 2040 are New Zealand.   I’ve always tended to discount the UK numbers, because of the different tax treatment of indexed bonds there, but both the US and Australian breakevens look a lot closer to the respective inflation targets (2.5 per cent in the case of Australia) than is the case here.

One of the fund managers we talked to on Friday made a throwaway comment about people simply looking at the last headline CPI number.    Maybe, but annual headline CPI inflation in New Zealand for the last six years has averaged 1.0 per cent.   The Reserve Bank’s favoured core measure has averaged 1.4 per cent over the same period.  And the Reserve Bank has never reached the limits of conventional monetary policy (the OCR hasn’t gone lower than 1.75 per cent) – inflation could have been higher had they chosen differently.  It might not be irrational for investors to treat the track record of the last several years as a reasonable pointer to the period ahead.  After all, the last six years has been a period with a strong terms of trade, and sustained (albeit moderate) growth.    Even if, as all the fund managers we talked to suggested, we are now in a “late cycle” phase when inflation might be expected to pick up, “late cycle” phases tend to come just before the end of the cycle.  There will be downturns in the next 10 or 20 years.

What of other possible explanations for these now persistently narrow New Zealand inflation breakevens?  In years gone by there was almost no liquidity in the indexed-bond market (for a long time there was but a single indexed bond).  All else equal, that might mean investors demanding a higher yield to hold the indexed bond (relative to a conventional bond), narrowing the observed breakevens relative to “true” market expectations of future inflation.

But if it was true once, it must be a less important story now.  There are four indexed bonds on issue, each with principal of several billion dollars.  As I noted earlier, if bid-ask spreads are still wider than those (a) on nominal bonds, and (b) on indexed bonds in say the US, they are tighter than they used to be.  It isn’t an attractive instrument for high frequency trading, but these are multi-month, even multi-year, trends we are looking at.

The other possible story I heard a while ago was the suggestion that the government had glutted the market by issuing too many indexed bonds.    It had an air of plausibility about it.  It isn’t as if there are many natural holders of these instruments –  there are no indexed bond mutual funds in New Zealand, they don’t count as a separate asset class in many mandates, and so on.  Then again, in a low yield (and yield hungry) global environment, these instruments offer a pretty juicy yield (the government has a AAA or AA+ credit rating, and its 2040 indexed bonds are offering just over 2 per cent real –  there isn’t much around to match that combination).  Here is the 10 year indexed bond yield chart (again from Fishers –  ignore the UK again).

real 10 year yields

Over the last few years, this is the proportion of New Zealand government bond sales that have been in the form of indexed bonds.

indexed bond share

About 24 per cent of New Zealand government bonds on issue are currently inflation-indexed.

I’m not sure how that compares generally with other countries, but in the UK –  long a keen issuer of inflation indexed government bonds – the share is also about a quarter.  The British also appear to be winding back their issuance –  to 21 per cent of new sales this year.  According to a  FT story from earlier this year

Robert Stheeman, chief executive of the UK’s Debt Management Office, said that “no other country regularly issues a quarter of its debt in inflation-linked bonds”, which “gives us pause for thought”. In contrast Italy — the continent’s largest issuer of inflation-linked bonds — raises just 13 per cent of its debt in this way, according to figures from the DMO.

It may well have been prudent then for our own government to have wound back its issuance plans for index-linked bonds.  But that news has now been out since the Budget last month, and there is still no sign that 10 year breakevens are more than about 1.5 per  cent –  still well short of the 2 per cent inflation target, that was recently reaffirmed by the new government.

There is an OCR review announcement later this week.  We don’t get much analysis in a one page press release, but as the Governor mulls his decision, and his communications, and looks towards the next full Monetary Policy Statement, it might be worth him inviting his staff to (a) produce, and (b) publish any analysis they have, as to why we should not take these indications from market prices as a sign that inflation expectations are not really anywhere close to the 2 per cent the Bank regularly claims.  Perhaps there is a good compelling alternative story. If so, it would be nice of them to tell us.  But given the actual track record of inflation, it would be a bit surprising if breakevens persistently below 2 per cent were not telling us something about market expectations (right or wrong) of inflation.

Exports of services: a dismal picture

In my post yesterday, I highlighted the pretty stark divergence in the performance of the tradables and non-tradables parts of the economy.  As the key chart in yesterday’s post illustrated, in the 1990s and into the early 2000s both the tradables and non-tradables sectors were growing strongly, even in per capita terms.   Since then, the non-tradables sector has continued to grow pretty strongly, but there has been no growth at all in per capita tradables sector GDP –  in fact, the current level is almost 10 per cent below the 2004 peak.

One element of the tradables sector that is commonly supposed to be doing well is exports of services: tourism, export education, and the rest.   The government has indicated that it hoped the ICT component would surge ahead and, on some definition or other, be the “second largest contributor to our economy by 2025”.

But how have services exports  actually being doing, as a share of the economy?  Here is the New Zealand chart.

services X june 18

There was really strong growth over the 15 years or so to the peak (marked) in around 2002.  Services exports lifted from less than 7 per cent of GDP to in excess of 10 per cent.  Since then, the trend has been back downwards again –  the current level only a touch above 8 per cent.  And, at that, one of the largest components –  export education – is, in effect, quite subsidised, by being bundled together with the ability to get work rights and residency points.

How have other advanced countries done?

Here is a chart, using annual OECD data, showing (a) New Zealand, (b) the median for those small OECD countries with complete data since 1986, and (c) the median for six small former Communist eastern and central European OECD countries, countries engaged in the sort of catch-up that New Zealand was supposed to experience.

services X 2 june 18

I don’t fully understand what was going in the former Communist countries in the first few years of the century, although since in many there was a big boom in domestic demand and credit, the export sectors (especially the bits not involving FDI) were probably under pressure.   Whatever the story for those countries then, both lots of small advanced countries have seen rising shares of their economies accounted for by services exports over the past decade.  We haven’t.

Here is another way of looking at our experience, looking at the percentage point change in the services exports share of GDP since our peak in 2002.

services x 3 june 18

There were two –  of 34 – OECD countries that saw a slightly larger fall in the GDP share of services exports.  In one case, the growth in goods exports more than offset the fall.  In the other –  Chile –  both goods and services exports shrank as a share of GDP, as happened in New Zealand.

As ever, foreign trade isn’t everything.  But when your per capita incomes and productivity are so far behind the leading countries in the OECD, the typical way in which a country would undergo a sustainable lift would involve a larger share of the economy accounted for by both exports and imports  That just hasn’t happened in New Zealand –  and, of course, neither has there been any catch-up.   Which isn’t surprising when, on the measure I illustrated yesterday, the real exchange rate over the last 15 years has averaged 27 per cent higher than the average level in the previous 15 years.

That higher real exchange rate didn’t get there by chance.  It was the consequence –  mostly unwitting – of deliberate government choices.

On which note, it is nine months today since the election.  In other words, a quarter of the government’s term has gone.  And, as far as I can see, there is nothing in policy announced, or foreshadowed, likely to do anything to close the productivity gaps,  materially alter the real exchange rate, narrow the large average interest differentials, or sustainably increase the export share of our economy so that in turn we can support a larger import share.  Oh, and market prices suggest no confidence that the manifest evil that is the housing market is on the way to being fixed either.