The PRC, the Pacific, and New Zealand

Our Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister gave an interesting speech in Washington last weekend.  It was a bit saccharine and ahistorical (past rivalries over various Pacific island and atolls anyone?) for my tastes, but the overall thrust –  urging the United States to be more active in the (south?) Pacific  – wasn’t something I much disagreed with.

The People’s Republic of China wasn’t named as a threat, but it didn’t take a genius to see the connection.  I remain somewhat sceptical that simply offering bigger “bribes” (call it development assistance if you want) is any way to build a more resilient Pacific in the medium-term.  That has to come down to values, domestic accountability (hardly likely to be fostered when lots of money is in play) and a recognition of the fundamentally evil, and corrosive, nature of the PRC regime –  whose values are as antithetical to most ordinary Pacific people, just as much as they are to most ordinary New Zealanders.   The short-sightedness (and greed?) of too many officeholders in Pacific countries is a formidable obstacle, their vanity flattered (for example) by invites to Beijing, even to meet Xi Jinping himself, whether or not their own pockets are lined.  These are mostly Christian countries, and yet when the Foreign Minister talked about the Pacific the other day there was nothing about values, nothing (for example) about freedom of religion, at time when the Beijing regime is intensifying its repression and persecution of Muslims and of Christians.   The sort of thing that would horrify most decent people (here or in the Pacific) if they knew –  as, for example, Kristallnacht did 80 years ago.  Values, not competitive aid bidding, drive societal choices in the longer term.

To the extent the speech had much attention at all locally –  which is hardly at all (has there been any thoughtful commentary from international affairs or Pacific specialists?) –  it has been on the extraordinary statement by the Prime Minister that she had not seen the speech before it was given.    It looked a lot like a significant foreign policy initiative, and yet it appeared not to have been discussed by the Cabinet. If anyone wanted evidence for Chris Trotter’s suggestion that the Prime Minister was in office but not in power, more decorative than substantive, it was hard to imagine a better example.  It looks like yet another example where there is a New Zealand First policy in some foreign affairs matter, but not necessarily a stance shared by the biggest party in government Labour.   After all, in her post-Cabinet press conference (link above) the Prime Minister was hardly offering a ringing endorsement of her Foreign Minister’s stance.   For practical purposes, they can probably both agree on flinging a bit of money around, with not much accountability, but perhaps not much beyond that.

And even if they happened to (more or less) agree on the Pacific –  and what will it come to anyway, in a US led by an inconstant troubled President, and with increasingly serious fiscal problems of its own? –  one area where Labour and New Zealand First must agree in practice is on doing and saying quite as little as possible about the PRC influence activities in New Zealand.  Some months ago, Winston Peters did make some cryptic remarks about how “something would be done” about Jian Yang, but it wasn’t clear if he meant anything then and (of course) it has come to nothing since (the Minister of Foreign Affairs doesn’t have much say over an Opposition MP).     Both seem more embarrassed by, than admiring of, Anne-Marie Brady –  in her case, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that the government (Parliament as a whole in fact) would much prefer that she went away and shut up, and stopped raising awkward questions.   Neither has been willing to call out the PRC over the Xinjiang internment camps –  not even joining with many of old friends when they got together to make representations.  They wouldn’t even speak up when National’s Todd McClay was parroting Beijing’s talking points about “vocational training centres” or –  in a country with still more self-identified Christians than any other faith –  about the renewed persecutions of the Chinese churches.  They seem quite unbothered about allowing such a heinous regime to put (safely vetted for political and religous “soundness”) agents of the PRC –  nice and friendly as they may be individually –  in our kids’ schools.  And has a word been heard from the Prime Minister or the Minister of Foreign Affairs about the PRC’s abductions of Canadians in China?  Do we stand with our friends, our values?  Or do we just cower before the PRC?  Peters and Ardern (and Bridges and Shaw) show all the signs of the latter approach.

So they fling all the money they like around the Pacific.  Perhaps if they do so Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo will take them a bit more seriously.  But unless they are willing to start taking seriously the issues here at home –  and there is not a shred of evidence for any such change of heart –  it isn’t clear why any of us should take them as seriously worthy of the offices they hold.  Through some mix of fear, delusion, mendicancy (all those party donations) they’ve taken our values, our traditions, and prostituted them on some CCP altar.  Egged on –  if anything more enthusiastically –  by the National Party.

If they were ever interested in beginning to get serious, political donations might be a place to start.   And on that score, I was interested to listen to outgoing National MP Chris Finalyson’s valedictory address.   I’ve never been a great fan of Finlayson – a classic example of what is wrong with MMP, never having had to actually win an election or persuade people to vote for him –  but my view of him took a steep dive at the Rongotai candidates’ meeting last year (Finlayson was the token National Party candidate).   From the floor I asked him

“Mr Finlayson, last week one of the world’s leading newspapers, the Financial Times gave considerable prominence to a story about a New Zealand MP.  That MP had been a member of the Chinese communist party, and part of the Chinese intelligence services.  He never disclosed that past to the public when he stood for Parliament, and has never taken the opportunity to denounce the evils of the Chinese regime.  Can you comment on why it is appropriate for such a person to be in our Parliament?  And could you also comment on the new paper by Professor Anne-Marie Brady raising concerns about the extent of China’s attempts to exert political influence in New Zealand, and about the close ties of various senior National Party figures with Chinese interests?”

The question was greeted not with embarrassed silence, but with pretty vigorous applause from the floor.

Finlayson –  our Attorney-General, first law officer of the land, senior National Party minister  – got up, briefly.   His answer ran roughly as follows:

“That was a Newsroom article, timed to damage the man politically.  I’m not going to respond to any of the allegations that have been made about/against him. I think it is disgraceful that a whole class of people have been singled out for racial abuse.  As for Professor Brady, I don’t think she likes any foreigners at all.”

The man dishonoured the high offices he held.   But, somewhat to my surprise, in his valedictory address, Finlayson included these remarks.

That’s why I think both major parties need to work together to review the rules relating to funding. I have a personal view that it should be illegal for non-nationals to donate to our political parties. Our political system belongs to New Zealanders, and I don’t like the idea of foreigners funding it. Similar concerns are now starting to be raised in other jurisdictions, and we need to work together, without recrimination, to ensure that our democracy remains our democracy”.

It is, mostly, illegal for non-nationals to donate material sums to our political parties.  I’d be happy to ban such donations completely, including those anonymous donations from abroad through the guise of charity auctions, of the sort Phil Goff funded his mayoral campaign with.    But, of course, many of the concerns serious people have about political donations –  in Australia, as well as in New Zealand –  do not relate to donations by non-nationals, but to donations by people born abroad who have become citizens, and yet retain close associations with reprehensible regimes in their country of birth (bluntly, the PRC).  I’m sceptical much can be done by law about that particular issue.  It requires political party leaders –  individually or together – to decide that there are some people they simply won’t take donations from at all.    There was a considerable fuss some years ago about the Exclusive Brethren.  No respectable party would take donations from known gang leaders or those strongly suspected of involvement in organised crime.  It shouldn’t be hard –  in a decent leader –  to make the moral choice that your party will take no donations from people with known (or strongly suspected) United Front associations.  It is what decent people would do, recognising the character of the PRC regime.

So, interesting as it was that Finlayson chose to raise the issue at all, his interjection barely scratched the surface of the issue.   But it was a (small) start from a figure who has enjoyed credibility in many circles.   Perhaps he could consider urging candidates in this year’s local body elections to commit to (a) take no donations (including through anonymous charity auctions) from non-New Zealand citizens, and (b) to take no donations even from citizens if those citizens have, or are strongly suspected to have, close ties with entities supporting highly repressive regimes in other countries.   Would it make any difference?  Probably not –  money can still be channelled less directly –  but it would be a signal to New Zealanders that their officeholders (and those bidding to take their place) took seriously the issue, the concern.    At worst, it would be interesting to hear how Phil Goff would defend refusing to make such a commitment to voters.

On another aspect of the PRC influence issue, a few weeks ago I was sent a copy of a book called “In the Jaws of the Dragon: How China is Taking Over New Zealand and Australia”, by one Ron Asher.   It is a 350 page book, apparently fairly well-documented and footnoted, now on its 5th edition (and so I’m told selling quite well) making a case that…….well, it is there in the title.   From the author’s note

This book…seeks to expose the sinister goals of the Communist government of China, which has murdered tens of millions of Chinese people since it shot its way to power in 1949, denies them basic rights and is now threatening the peace of the Pacific –  and the world –  by its excessive armaments programme and its expansionist activities in the South China Sea.  Through economic domination, aggressive immigration, bullying and other means it is trying to exert a control over Australia and New Zealand that is harmful to our sovereignty, democracy, heritage and economic prospects for the future.

There was plenty of interesting material in the book, and it was useful to have it gathered in one place.  It was interesting to learn of (former National) MP Jami-Lee Ross’s paid trips to the PRC –  which left me wondering (a) how many other MPs have had such trips, and (b) why we don’t just follow the US example and ban MPs taking any material hospitality from foreign governments, friendly or potentially hostile/threatening.   There was plenty of material –  including around Confucius Institutes (this week yet another US university decided to close theirs down), Huawei, and “aid” to various Pacific countries.

And yet much of the material had me pushing back to some extent at least.   The author is much more wary of foreign investment from the PRC than I am.  To be fair, the global tide of opinion on risks around PRC corporate investment abroad is shifting –  reinforced by the PRC laws which make it clear that even private PRC companies must follow directions of the PRC authorities (party/State).   And weak capital markets disciplines in China –  especially around SOEs –  have long left me a little nervous about any material expansion in the role of PRC banks.  It would seem crazy  –  simply an unnecessary risk, given the character of the regime – to allow, for example, our electricity or telecoms network companies to be owned or controlled by PRC-friendly interest.  I hope that when a stake in the Port of Napier is sold no one will even consider a sale to PRC interests –  port acquisitions have been a significant aspect of PRC strategy abroad in recent years, perhaps benefiting the sellers but leave societies to repent at leisure.

But I’m still not persuaded the sale of dairy farms to PRC interests, or the establishment of PRC-owned milk processing plants in New Zealand represents any material sort of threat to New Zealand, or New Zealanders.    The author notes that the (PRC) buyer will reap the profits in future, including from the ability to construct integrated supply and distribution chains.  But in a land market that is even moderately competitive, much of those gains should be captured in the value of the land at the point of sale.  Within limits, it makes sense for assets to be owned by parties best able to utilise them.  That ability is likely to be reflected in a willingness to pay.   Perhaps I’m a touch naive, but some arguments still seem to go too far for my comfort and conviction.  The growing entanglement of our universities with PRC interests –  consciously making themselves exposed to PRC political pressure –  represents more of a risk, and pressure point –  the more so  when we once looked to universities to champion the sorts of values that underpinned our society (but not the PRC).

This isn’t an attempt at a full review.  For those interested in the issue though, there is plenty to chew on, whether one ends up going quite as far as the author (or not).   Perhaps the thing I came away with most was a sense of how careless of our values our political leaders have been, how indifferent to the character of the Beijing regime, and how utterly shortsighted their approach has been for decades –  whether pursuing personal gain (which I suspect mostly isn’t the reason –  it may be different for business and academic figures), party donations, or just lemming-like prioritising trade and short-term opportunities over all.

Whatever the motive, in many respects they’ve blithely, unconcernedly, sold out New Zealand and New Zealanders, dishonouring both our own freedoms and values, and those (denied) of hundreds of millions of Chinese.   But even at this point, it isn’t clear that the PRC has clout in New Zealand beyond the deference our political officeholders –  cowering –  keep choosing (and it is wholly a matter of choice, especially at this physical distance) to pay them.   Evil people –  Xi Jinping and his party and regime – will do what they will do, as Hitler or Stalin before them did.  We can’t do much about them –  hoping against hope for regime change –  but we can choose what responses we tolerate in our officeholders.    If we care at all about PRC influence in the Pacific, our officeholders might start by demonstrating that they take the issue –  the regime and its threat – seriously at home.  What matters to someone is best demonstrated by the price they are willing to pay for it.


Productivity: no relief in the hours data

What I actually wanted to write about briefly today was prompted by this story in the Financial Times a couple of weeks ago which reported on the results of OECD work suggesting that harmonising the measurement of hours worked would reduce by about half the (rather puzzling) large gap in estimated labour productivity (real GDP per hour worked) between the UK on the one hand and France (and Germany) on the other hand.

The UK’s statistical agency makes very few adjustments to self-reported estimates of people’s usual hours, but French number crunchers adjust survey responses to include holidays, sick leave, strikes and work done in the “illegal economy”.

If the figures were produced on a comparable basis it would reduce the productivity gap between the UK and France to about 10 per cent, the OECD estimates.

The OECD paper is here.  It is a pretty dry account of a worthy exercise in trying to get greater standardisation of the hours worked estimates.   For the European countries they produce indicative overall labour productivity estimates using the proposed harmonised methodology.  This is the summary chart.

oecd hours chart

The blue bars are the current official estimates, while the white dots show the OECD estimates based on the new methodology for the countries where there were material differences.   There are some pretty substantial differences: Austria and Sweden move up to join the group of countries (US, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark) which I’ve characterised as the OECD top-tier (setting Norway –  with abundant oil and gas –  tax-distorted Ireland, and tiny Luxembourg to one side).   But there are non-trivial differences for a number of countries further down the scale.   These revised estimates will be used in future OECD releases of productivity (levels) statistics.

When the FT article first appeared someone got in touch and asked if this could be part of the answer in New Zealand too.  My initial response was that the productivity gaps between New Zealand and the top-tier were so large there was no credible way any issue around hours measurement was going to explain much of it.   But it nagged in the back of my mind, so earlier this week I asked Statistics New Zealand about whether the OECD work had any implications for New Zealand productivity numbers.  SNZ don’t publish economywide productivity numbers, but their data is used by the OECD, who do.

I had a prompt and very helpful reply from Statistics New Zealand (kudos on this, if not on the Census).   They had apparently been fully consulted by the OECD researchers.  They had identified a handful of issues (which look quite minor in the scheme of things) around the New Zealand data, but the bottom line was

Recent correspondence by the authors  also noted: “As mentioned previously, but worth reiterating at this juncture, the paper currently only proposes changes to the estimates in a handful of countries (not including yourselves), based on available data.” In that regard, we consider ourselves to have fared better than some other countries reviewed in the publication.

Summary: our hours worked numbers look pretty much okay by international standards.  Unlike the Brits, our very large reported labour productivity gaps aren’t going to suddenly be revised downwards from this work.

That’s a shame  (substance is what it is, but reported numbers do matter).  But perhaps more sobering is that if our labour productivity estimates aren’t changing, and those of 10 other OECD countries (more than a quarter of the OECD membership) are, then our position relative to the rest of the OECD, mostly the advanced countries, now looks worse than it was previously.   In this chart, I’ve taken the latest official OECD numbers and made adjustments to the extent indicated in the OECD paper for Lithuania, Latvia,Poland, Portugal, Greece, the UK, Austria, and Sweden.

OECD GDP phw hours adj

On these estimates Lithuania – a part of the USSR as recently as 1991 –  is now only slightly behind New Zealand, likely to shortly be the third former eastern bloc country to overtake us.   And Poland –  whose experience I wrote about here last month –  is a lot less further behind that had been thought.    Even Greece and Portugal now look less bad relative to New Zealand, while the UK, Austria and Sweden are further ahead than we’d thought.  (Australia’s relative position also deteriorates of course.)

This isn’t a competition.  It is great news that Poland and Lithuania are doing even better than we thought.  But benchmarks are useful, and our performance relative to other advanced countries is –  and now has been for decades –  lousy.   And yet our political officeholders –  I refuse to call them leaders –  do nothing, and try to either spin the data or change the subject.

As I’ve noted previously, Turkey has now also almost reached New Zealand productivity levels –  something inconceivable just a few decades ago.  It was perhaps salutary to note news reports out of the climate talkfest in Poland last week that Turkey was objecting to being grouped as a “developed country”.   Their bid failed, but that they made it all should perhaps be a prompt to think that our own self-identification as an advanced economy is no longer as secure as it was –  a product more of history, than of current economic performance.  We really aren’t now much more than an upper middle income country, and that has consequences.



Bank capital: (not) consulting with APRA

After I’d posted yesterday, a reader made this comment about an article which apparently appeared in the Australian Financial Review yesterday

I see the AFR reporting today that APRA say they were “consulted” about the RBNZ release last Friday which was the document’s release date.

That account seemed consistent with a comment I’d seen in The Australian the previous day in which APRA indicated that they would be consulting with the Reserve Bank on its proposals, but with no indication that there had been any prior consultation.  If so, that seems extraordinary.

My reader went on to ask

Is there any protocol for consultation between APRA and RBNZ on these types of regulatory issues? It seems surprising to me that the RBNZ could propose something so radical without a genuine prior discussion with the regulator of the banks who dominate the NZ financial system.

I can only endorse that second sentence.  If anything, it seems like an understatement.

There are reciprocal provisions in the New Zealand and Australian legislation (the New Zealand provision is here), but they are mostly about doing whatever possible to avoid damage to the other country’s financial system (especially in crisis resolution).  There is also an RBNZ/APRA MOU, but it is mostly about ongoing supervision of trans-Tasman banks.   There is this brief, rather minimalistic, section

Regulatory Policy Development
25. The Authorities expect to respond to requests for information on their respective national regulatory systems and inform each other about major changes, including those that have a significant bearing on the activities of Cross-border Establishments.

But not every expectation of reasonable and appropriate behaviour should need to be written down.

Searching the Reserve Bank’s consultative document for references to APRA, it seemed telling that the Bank referred a couple of times to the possibility of aligning with APRA standards around the idea (questionable) of introducing a leverage ratio, but has no discussion at all about the merits (or otherwise) of introducing new capital requirements so far in excess of those APRA imposes (requirements called “radical” by one of the ratings agencies).

And yet the risks the two countries’ banking systems are exposed to seem very similar, and much the same banking groups are involved.   And when the senior management of our Reserve Bank is pretty new to these sorts of issues, and when the Bank consciously chose to dis-establish its own risk modelling capability several years ago, it is hard not to think that the Reserve Bank would have benefited from serious consultations with APRA (at various levels of the respective organisations) even as the Governor retained the right to come to his own decision.   There is a suggestion that the Governor has a bit of chip on his shoulder about Australia and Australian banks.  Whether that is true or not, if the indications of lack of prior consultation are correct, it isn’t good enough.  But I suppose it parallels the apparent lack of any systematic advance consultation –  technical papers, seminars etc –  with people outside the Bank in New Zealand either.     It might be interesting for someone to ask them who they actually did consult with (other than (apparently) Professors Admati and Hellwig).  Even within government, how much prior consultation was there with The Treasury or the Minister of Finance?

The New Zealand legislation may, misguidedly and for the time being, give the Governor the barely-trammelled power to make these decisions, but it is important to recognise that the Reserve Bank (the Governor) neither bears the costs of these decisions (whether they work out well or not) nor gets any benefits from them.  Great power –  in a single person’s hands – and yet not much incentive to get things right.  That is a worrying combination.

After yesterday’s post, another reader sent me this line from Adam Smith

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.

The Wealth of Nations, , Book IV, Chapter II

The full quote is mostly about a slightly different point, but as my reader noted the final couple of lines seemed particularly apposite.