The PM’s economic plan

I read the Prime Minister’s economics speech yesterday. I wasn’t impressed.  There is simply no sign that she cares one jot about New Zealand’s decades of underperformance or that she has any sort of analytical framework (herself or from her advisers) for even thinking about the issue.  It may be repetitious to say so –  as a reader this week suggested –  but the utter unseriousness about our ongoing relative decline really matters; perhaps not directly or much for many people my age or older, but for our kids, and their future kids.  Including for the question of whether the next generations even stay, rather than joining the million or so New Zealanders (net) who’ve left over recent decades.

She continues to perpetuate what are little more than lies

“…on key economic measures the Government is delivering”.

That would be the economy with no productivity growth, with foreign trade flat or falling as a share of GDP, and with houses that are increasingly unaffordable to younger generations.  Some delivery.

She runs a fairly conventional story about risks in the global economy, and keys off a line from the IMF Managing Director suggesting that “policymakers need to make greater efforts to prepare for the slowdown”, noting that “that is a message we are heeding”.

That’s why our economic plan includes the following key planks:

  • Doubling down on trade and broadening our trading base to protect our exporters and economy
  • Reform of skills and trade training to address long-term labour shortages and productivity gaps in the New Zealand economy, and to make sure we are prepared for ongoing automation and the future of work
  • Changes to tax to make the system fairer
  • Addressing our long-term infrastructure challenges
  • Transitioning to a sustainable carbon-neutral economy
  • And of course investment in wellbeing, because this is inextricably linked to our economic success too.

Not one of those strands really has anything much to do with coping with a cyclical downturn (getting onto the Reserve Bank to deal with interest rate lower bound might,or even arguably something around fiscal policy), but even if one takes them as the components of a longer-term economic strategy it is underwhelming at best.

Take trade, nothing the government is doing (and there is a page of it in the speech) is any different than the previous government was doing.  You might approve of that approach or not, but the point is that during the term of the previous government foreign trade fell as a share of GDP.  The latest Treasury forecasts, prepared on current government policy, didn’t suggest any reversal.

No one supposes that a capital gains tax is going to make any material difference to the productivity/efficiency of the New Zealand economy.  As the Prime Minister says, the goal there is “fairness” –  which might be a perfectly reasonable argument, but there is no credible story in which it makes us in aggregate materially better off as a country.

Despite its appearance in the list, there was nothing in the speech about those “long-term infrastructure challenges”.  Lots has been spent on infrastructure over the last 15 years – when productivity growth was feeble, tailing off to non-existence, so why should we (or her audience) think things will be different now.  And is there any sign of using the infrastructure we already have more efficiently –  eg congestion pricing in Auckland (and perhaps Wellington)?

As for the carbon-neutral economy, that might on some tellings be a worthy or even noble objective.  But the government’s own consultative document last year reported estimates that achieving that goal would cost anything between about 10 and 20 per cent of 2050 GDP.   Some people dispute those estimates, but I’ve not seen any credible story in which New Zealand’s aggressive pursuit of carbon-neutral would make us economically better off.

As for “investing in wellbeing”, I guess she has to include at least one reference to this vacuous project. But it, after all, involves a de-emphasis on economic performance, not lifting that performance.  In discussing wellbeing in her speech, she is openly complacent about GDP growth, rather than giving any sense that we really need to be doing a lot better (productivity etc) if many of the other aspirations society has are to be met.

Which brings us to skills, which gets 2.5 pages in the speech, apparently a prelude to whatever specific reforms are being announced next week.  Labour has long been keen on pushing the line that a significant part of lifting productivity in New Zealand involves lifting “skills”.  I guess it sounds good –  whether workers or firms, who is likely to object.

Except, of course, that OECD cross-country comparative data suggests that adult skills levels in New Zealand are already among the highest in the OECD.   I wrote about this in a post a couple of years ago, and here are some of the charts and text.

Here is how our adults scored on literacy.

oecd literacy 2

And numeracy

oecd numeracy

And on “Problem-solving in technology-rich environments”

oecd problem solving

Looking across the three measures, by my reckoning only Finland, Japan, and perhaps Sweden do better than New Zealand. Perhaps there is something very wrong with the way the survey is done, and it is badly mis-measuring things, but those aren’t usually the OECD’s vices. For the time being, I think we can take it as reasonably solid data. And the broad sweep of the cross-country results makes some sort of rough sense: typically the poorer countries are to the left of the charts (relatively less highly-skilled).

And when the OECD lines up the skills scores against the productivity data one of the largest gaps (lagging productivity) is for New Zealand   The cross-country scatter plots don’t show a tight relationship by any means, but they do tend to suggest that the skills and talents of our people aren’t what holds New Zealand back.

Sure, it looks as though our schools could usefully focus on teaching maths better, and no matter what the aggregate scores some individuals will almost always lag behind.  But as some sort of centrepiece of an “economic plan”  skills just isn’t an obvious place to start.   The Prime Minister and her advisers might find it more rewarding to start with areas in which New Zealand more visibly stands out: persistently low rates of business investment, persistently high real exchange rates, and persistently high (relative to other countries) real interest rates.  But I guess confronting some of those stylised facts might raise questions about economic policy over recent decades that they would rather avoid.

In the midst of her section on skills, these sentences caught my eye

Take the building sector for example. We know we need more tradies and they are just not coming through fast enough.

That’s absolutely no reflection of the people who are involved in the sector – far from it. What it is, is a damning statement that the system has been left to drift, to muddle through.

Perhaps, but count me a little unconvinced.  Here is Quarterly Employment Survey data on construction sector jobs as a share of total filled jobs, back to 1989.

construction jobs.png

There are roughly twice as many people employed in construction as there were in 2002, and the increase in the share of the total workforce is really huge.   I’m not convinced it is a particularly helpful sign that 9 per cent of our total workforce has to be employed just building houses and shops for each other, but it is what happens when policymakers have turbocharged population growth.  Perhaps more relevantly, the construction sector is highly cyclical –  globally –  and if I were counselling a young person about possible career options I’d be suggesting that a construction sector workforce as high as 9 per cent of the total isn’t that likely to last for long. But no doubt the Prime Minister sees things differently.

If there is any sign of a plan, it isn’t one that is going to do anything to lift our economic performance, in the short or longer-term.   All indications are that the Prime Minister doesn’t care.  More worrying is the possibility that neither do many of her audience –  comfortable successful business figures, mostly doing well out of an economy skewed increasingly inwards.

Someone needs to cut through the indifference of the political and economic establishment.  But it won’t be the Prime Minister’s party –  or her allies or the National Party.