Economic failure: the reluctance to recognise the implications of extreme remoteness

As regular readers know, I tend not to be particular upbeat about the New Zealand economic story.  For anyone new, there should be a hint in the very title of the blog.  If, by chance, you are still attracted to an upbeat take, only last week in a post here I critiqued a recent book chapter taking that sort of view.

And so I was a bit surprised when, more than a year ago now, I was asked to write a chapter for a forthcoming book on aspects of policymaking, and associated outcomes, in a small state (this one).  In principle, the book sounded potentially interesting, and they were approaching a bunch of pretty serious and senior people to contribute.  But it wasn’t clear there was much in it for me, and since the plan was for the introduction or foreword to have been written by the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, it seemed likely that the thrust the organisers were looking for was a positive take on the New Zealand story.   So as not to mess people about, I declined the invitation, only to have my arm twisted, with assurances that there was no such agenda.  In the end I agreed to write something, and although the organisers/editors still seem keen on a more positive spin, by the time I discovered that I was committed.

The latest draft of my chapter, attempting to be positive where I can, is here.

An underperforming economy; the insufficiently recognised implications of distance (draft chapter)

I’ve had useful comments from various people on an earlier draft (none of them bear any responsibility for the current version though), but if any readers have comments you’d like to add to the mix, you can earlier leave them as comments to this post or email me directly (address in the “About Michael Reddell’s blog” tab).

The potential market for the book, as I understand it, is people like students of public policy, perhaps in parts of Asia.  Many of these potential readers, I’m given to understand, see New Zealand as a sucesss story.   Within the (severe) limitations of length, I’ve set out to provide a more balanced take on the economic story.  In a way, I guess, New Zealand is a sort of success story.  200 years ago on these islands there was not much more than a subsistence economy, and only recently had overseas trade resumed after the inhabitants had been isolated for several hundred years.  From that to one of the richest countries in the world in a hundred years was remarkable.  And even now, after a century of relative decline,  there is only a handful of countries in east Asia and the southwest Pacific with material living standards matching or exceeding our own (Australia, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, with South Korea coming close).   And from a macroeconomic policy perspective, we’ve now had low and stable inflation again for 25 years, have had low and stable public debt, and a considerable measure of financial stability.  That isn’t nothing by any means.

But it doesn’t exactly mark us out.  What does mark us out is that century of relative decline: of course, we are much richer than we were 100 years or so ago, but then we were among the top three countries in the world (GDP per capita), and now we languish a long way down the advanced country rankings (especially on productivity measures).    With productivity levels not quite 60 per cent of those in the leading bunch of advanced economies, we are getting closer to the point where New Zealand could really only be described as an upper middle income country.

My story, as a regular readers know, is that our physical remoteness –  in an era where, internet notwithstanding, distance appears to be not much less of a constraint than ever in many respects – is the key issue in our underperformance.  It isn’t that –  as some models and sets of estimated equations suggest –  distant countries are inevitably poorer, but that distant countries seem to thrive (to the extent they do) mostly on natural resources, and industries building directly on those resources.  And with a limited stock of natural resources, there are limits to the number of people that such places can support top tier incomes for (a very different proposition than for economies –  eg those of northwest Europe – where most of the most productive economies are found) where natural resources are simply no longer that important, and where the advantages of proximity can be realised more readily.    The story is much the same for Australia as for New Zealand –  and Australia has also been in (less severe) relative decline over the last 100 years – with the difference that Australia found itself able to utilise whole new sets of natural resources, either unknown or uneconomic previously.  New Zealand has had nothing – that material – similar, and no big asymmetric technology shocks in our favour for a long time either.   Against that backdrop, using policy to drive population growth (rapid by advanced country standards) simply did not make sense –  putting more people in a fairly unpropitious location, albeit one with some reasonable economic institutions (rule of law etc).  It didn’t make sense decades ago –  before people fully appreciated the nature of New Zealand’s relative economic decline –  and it doesn’t now.   There was a valuable signal, that policymakers and their advisers simply chose to ignore, when New Zealanders –  who know New Zealand best –  starting leaving in numbers that (while cyclical variable) are really large by international or historical standards (absent a civil war or the like).

Perhaps the new bit to my story in this draft chapter – which was prompted by the way the initial specification was framed –  was to think about why the stark economic underperformance has been allowed to go on, not just by our politicians and political parties, but with no compelling remedies offered by our major economic policy advisory institutions (The Treasury in particular) or by international agencies that offer advice (notably the OECD).  I suggest a story in which it is simply difficult to identify that right comparator countries when thinking about economywide productivity and economic performance issues.  For many areas of policy –  monetary policy is an example, but it is probably true of health and education and welfare –  pretty much any advanced market economies can offer useful benchmarking, but if remoteness really does matter (not just to, say, defence, but) to the viable options and business opportunities available here, then the experiences of –  say –  Belgium or Denmark just aren’t likely to be that useful, even if Denmark has a similar population and was once the major competitor for UK dairy markets.

We may be able to learn something from reflecting on the differences, but it is typically much more compelling if one can point to another similar country (or 2 or 10 of them) and learn from them.   And thus I note an important difference between New Zealand and many of the (now fast) emerging advanced economies of central and eastern Europe.  Not only are they physically proximate to various highly productive economies (easy and cheap to meet fellow policymakers and analysts regularly, including in EU fora), but have a lot of similarities across each other (similar location, similar communist past, and so on).     I don’t claim to know Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic or Slovakia in great detail, but if I were a policymaker in any of them, I’d be (almost obsessively) benchmarking my economic policies against those of the others, and of nearby rich and productive countries (eg Austria and Switzerland).  There are never exact parallels, but in New Zealand’s case it is hard to find good parallels at all. I suggest that Israel might be in some respects the best for New Zealand –  but it is little studied here (and its productivity performance is about as bad as ours –  partly, I’ve suggested, for similar reasons).

The lack of easy examples to benchmark ourselves against isn’t really an acceptable excuse, but I suspect it is part of the explanation.  It is long been a problem for the OECD in their advice to New Zealand: they’ve repeatedly brought a northern European mindset to a remote corner of the world, after early on investing quite a lot in the idea that the New Zealand reforms were exemplary, and almost sure to reverse our underperformance.  Places like the OECD work a lot on illustrating cross-country comparisons, but they simply never found the right ones for New Zealand (on these economywide issues) and have not shown much sign of trying.  It is particularly problematic because the OECD are full-on committed to high immigration, regardless of the experience of an individual country (see my post about the then OECD Chief Economist extraordinary performance when she launched their 2017 New Zealand report – there is a new report due out in a few weeks, and I’m not holding my breath).

Of course, New Zealand politicians no longer seem to have any appetite for trying to reverse the staggering decline in New Zealand’s relative performance.    But just possibly they might if their advisers were offering a compelling diagnosis and set of prescriptions.  As it, The Treasury seems to have no more idea than the OECD, and seems to have abandoned much interest in the productivity issue, in favour of the feel-goodism and smorgasbord of random indicators that makes up the Living Standards Framework, supporting the “wellbeing Budget”.  I was exchanging notes the other day with someone about the mystery as to who the next Secretary to the Treasury will be (there is a vacancy a month from now, and applications closed three months ago).  It is hard to be optimistic that it will make much difference who gets the job –  given the hoops they will have to have jumped through to get it –  but sadly it is a story of a low-level equilibrium: no political demand for answers and options to reverse our decades of relative decline. and no bureaucratic supply of such answers or the supporting analysis either.

Anyway, for anyone interested here are the concluding paragraphs.

Conclusion

After the bold reforming period of the 1980s and early 1990s, official and political economic policymaking in New Zealand appears to have been at sea, without a tiller or compass, for at least a couple of decades.   Much that was positive was done during the reform era, and various good institutional reforms were put in place.  Much needed to be done, and in some respects it was to the credit of a small country that so much – initially attracting considerable international admiration –  could have been put in place so quickly.    Seared by the experience of the quasi-crisis of 1984, and rapid escalation of official debt in the previous decade, New Zealand has since enjoyed an enviable degree of macroeconomic stability: low and stable public debt, low and stable inflation, and domestic financial stability (even amid severe policy-induced upward pressures on house prices and household debt).  Unemployment rates that are fairly low on average are another successful element.   In those areas of policy, meaningful international benchmarks have provided a routine check of policy, and the external advice sometimes provided has typically been drawn from countries (small floating exchange rate countries), where the comparisons are apt and insightful.

But if stability has been successfully regained and maintained, on the wider counts of economic performance only a “fail” mark could possibly be assigned.  Among the failures, policymakers managed to preside over reforms that have created artificial scarcity of urban land and sky-high housing prices, in common with many of their Anglo peers.  But the productivity failure is more stark, because it is more specific to New Zealand.   Despite numerous (de)regulatory steps taken to open the economy to international competition –  and a considerable increase in the real volume of exports and imports –  foreign trade as a share of GDP has shrunk and with it the relative size of the tradables sector.  The export sector itself remains heavily dominated by industries reliant on domestic natural resources (a fixed asset) – services exports have been shrinking as a share of GDP – and, despite rapid population growth, business investment has been modest at best.

To an outsider, perhaps the surprising feature of such an underperforming advanced economy is that population growth has nonetheless been quite rapid. Birth rates have been below long-term replacement rates for several decades now. But defying the revealed preferences of New Zealanders, who have left the country in huge (but cyclically variable) numbers over the last 50 years for 25 years now policy has been set to bring in one of the largest migrant flows (per capita) of any advanced country.   Regularly presented as a skills-focused approach, it has remained difficult to attract many really talented people to a small remote country with lagging incomes and productivity[1] and there have been few (apparent or realised) outward-oriented economic opportunities in New Zealand for either natives or migrants.

Advocates and defenders of New Zealand immigration policy often attempt to invoke arguments and indicative evidence from other countries.  Even then, the value of insights appears more limited than the champions believe: not one of the high immigration advanced economies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel – or the United States) has been at the forefront of productivity growth over the last 50 years, and only the US is now near the frontier in levels terms.  But even if those arguments might have some validity in some other countries, there has been too little serious engagement with the specifics of the New Zealand situation: remoteness, lack of newly-exploitable natural resources,  and the actual experience (lack of demonstrable gains for New Zealanders) following 25 years with a high level of (notionally) skills-based immigration.    As by far the most remote of any advanced country, it is perhaps the last place one might naturally expect to see policy actively working (encouraged by local officials and international agencies) to support rapid population growth.

Looking ahead, if New Zealanders are once again to enjoy incomes and material living standards matching the best in the OECD, policy and academic analysts will have to focus afresh on the implications, and limitations, of New Zealand’s extreme remoteness and how best policy should be shaped in light the unchangeable nature of that constraint (at least on current technologies)   Past experience –  1890s, 1930s, and 1980s – shows that policies can change quickly and markedly in New Zealand.  But with no reason to expect any sort of dramatic crisis – macro-economic conditions are stable, unlike the situation in the early 1980s –  it is difficult to see what might now break policy out of the 21st century torpor or, indeed, whether the economics institutions would have the capacity to respond effectively if there was to be renewed political appetite for change.

[1] OECD (2016) adult skills data suggest that although the gap between skills of natives and migrants is small, migrants to New Zealand are, on average, less skilled than natives.

There won’t be any posts for a few days as we are heading off this morning to attend the funeral for my wife’s (extremely aged) grandmother.  Back blogging on Tuesday.

Poor policy processes and bank capital

The Reserve Bank’s Financial Stability Review is out tomorrow.  The last such document came out in late November, when we got a lot on the non-issue (from a New Zealand banking system systemic risk perspective) of climate change and almost nothing on bank capital.   There was a double-page spread on the former –  which the Governor has next to no responsibility for –  and on the latter only this

A consultation paper on the minimum capital ratios is due to be released in December. Our preliminary view is that higher capital requirements are necessary, so that the banking system can be sufficiently resilient whilst remaining efficient. The Reserve Bank’s aim is to announce final decisions on all key components of the capital framework in the second quarter of 2019.

The actual announcement of a huge proposed increase in minimum capital ratios was a mere two weeks away –  decisions must already have been made –  and there was not even a hint of the magnitude of what the Governor was about to hit the economy with.  And do note that strong sense of pre-determination: they thought they could announce proposals on the eve of Christmas and have everything finalised by June.  Their latest plan, announced last week, is for a final decision in November.   Even then, there is a strong hint of pre-determination, with comments as recent as the last day or two stating that “we will lift capital levels”, even if they now seem to want to sound more open about the extent.

I don’t suppose the Governor will be saying much tomorrow about the substance of the bank capital proposals.  Submissions have now closed, and it would be unwise for him to weigh in further now, at least if he hopes to be able to defend himself against charges that the consultation wasn’t for real.     But I hope there are serious questions –  both at the Governor’s press conference, and from the Finance and Expenditure Committee –  about the process.    It has been poor from the beginning, built on a weak and inappropriate governance framework, and if the latest announcement is a little more encouraging there are still significant unanswered questions.

Under the terms of the Reserve Bank Act, the Governor can unilaterally vary conditions of registration for banks.  That includes their minimum capital requirements.  This isn’t a conventional regulatory model: no ministers are involved, no decisionmaking board is involved, Parliament’s regulations review committee can’t disallow such rules.   And, of course, the Governor is not elected, is not even appointed by people who are elected, and neither he nor those who appoint him face any serious or effective accountability.  The only thing he has to do is to make sure that he jumps through the process hoops around “consultation”, and even then it is a very weak test given the deference courts tend to pay to agencies, and the extreme reluctance of banks to ever openly challenge their regulator in court (the Bank has lots of other discretion it can wield to disadvantage awkward banks).  It is a bad case of the adminstrative state run rampant, neither accountable nor particularly expert.

The Governor himself can’t change the statute he operates under (although the government does have underway at present a review of the Reserve Bank Act).  But a good Governor can recognise the limitations of that legislation, and choose to operate in ways that minimise the risks and disadvantages of a framework put in place decades ago, when the designers did not envisage the Bank exercising major regulatory discretion.  As it is, the Governor is effectively prosecutor, judge, and jury in his own case, and there are no rights of appeal.  Anyone with the slightest sense of history and human nature would recognise certain risks in such a model.   Checks and balances not.

The Reserve Bank’s overall capital review has been running for several years, dating back to Graeme Wheeler’s time.   There has never been strong grounds for urgency around the review, capital requirements having been lifted last only a few years ago.  Of course, regulated entities (banks, in this case) want certainty, but I’m pretty sure even they want robustly developed and scrutinised rules.

How much better if, having got their internal staff work to a certain point, the Reserve Bank had engaged in some proper, open-minded, consultation before the Governor ever signed on to a particular proposal.   Perhaps there could have been a series of Analytical Notes, Bulletin articles, and other background papers, reviewing relevant literature, reviewing the New Zealand experience, comparing and contrasting New Zealand’s situation with those in other countries (including identifying how and in what ways specific countries were relevant comparators, and rigorously reviewing arguments and evidence around possible medium-term transitional effects.  It might have all come together in something like, in older parlance, a Green Paper: not formal proposals, but a canvassing of issues, possibilities, risks, costs, benefits and so on.  A series of workshops and/or conferences could have been held over several months, open to interested parties (including invited local and international experts), to help test the Bank’s preliminary thinking. scrutinise the evidence etc etc, and all without the eventual decisionmaker having committed himself.  Such a process wouldn’t simply have been about picking holes, but might have highlighted new evidence (for or against) the Bank wasn’t aware of, or identified a list of important further questions needing more analysis or research.

It could have been a genuinely constructive process –  the path to better policy, as well as to a better reputation for the Bank (recall that stakeholder survey from a year or so ago).  At very least, it would have helped alert senior management (the Governor particularly) to the potential weaknesses in the Bank’s own analysis, major areas of concerned that commenters might raise if the matter went to formal consultation, and thus should have helped his own preliminary decisionmaking process.

And having done all that over a period of several months, the Governor might then have taken a preliminary view and moved to the next phase of consultation, but have done so with all his ducks in a line:

  • all the relevant papers would be released at the same time (not continue to be written over several months) including the pro-active release of background internal material,
  • there would be a proper rigorous cost-benefit analysis, with appropriate key sensitivities and asssumptions clearly highlighted,
  • there would be a regulatory impact assessment, not just done by those championing the reform, but independently reviewed and scrutinised,
  • and recognising that, unlike when a minister initiates legislative proposals (which have to get through Cabinet, select committee, and Parliament), the Governor is the sole decisionmaker on his own proposal, it would have been appropriate for the Governor to have announced the appointment –  at the start of the process –  of a small independent panel of credible experts to assist him in his later deliberations.  The Governor can’t delegate his statutory decisionmaking powers to expert advisers, but he can commit to have serious regard to the analysis and advice of such a panel, and to publish their advice before his own final decision was taken.

But we’ve had none of this.  Instead, the Governor charged ahead on what was evidently little more than a whim and a personal preference, and has been rushing to try to backfill his case ever since.  Having run into what appears to have been unexpectedly strong resistance to his plans –  and not just from the directly affected banks themselves, but from plenty of people with no vested interests –  we are now finally promised a proper cost-benefit analysis, and some “external experts”, but it is now so late in the piece that whatever and whoever they come up with is going to be greeted with a considerable measure of scepticism.  Anyone can produce a cost-benefit analysis to meet his or her boss’s preferences, and there will inevitably be a sense that whatever is finally produced –  how many more months away? –  it was generated to support the boss rather than to illuminate the issues.  And who are they going to find to serve as “external experts” this late in the piece, when most of those who think about the issues domestically have already either expressed their views and been involved as consultants in preparing submissions by others.  There can be a role for overseas experts, but knowledge of the New Zealand system and New Zealand experience should not be irrelevant.  And quite what is the selection process the Governor is going to use at this late stage –  the suspicion will inevitably be that he will be aiming for people just credible enough to look serious, but emollient enough not to want to make difficulties.

In a better world, having got this far, the Bank would now commit to publishing the cost-benefit analysis, the regulatory impact assessment, and the advice of the (as yet unknown) external experts and then reopening the consultation process for a short period (say 4-6 weeks), and only after any new submissions had been received, analysed, and seriously considered would the Governor make his final decision.   These are very big issues, with potentially major economic consequences, and no urgency (no doubt the Bank will tomorrow repeat its longrunning assurance that the financial system is sound).  We need to see much better policy processes used than have been on display so far –  all the more so when a single non-expert unelected official is making the proposals and the final decisions, and when his final decisions cannot be appealed.

 

CANZUK

I’ve been intrigued by the CANZUK proposition for some time.  In their own words,

CANZUK International was founded in January 2015 …and is the world’s leading non-profit organisation advocating freedom of movement, free trade and foreign policy coordination between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom (the “CANZUK” countries).

Our campaign advocates closer cooperation between these four nations so they may build upon existing economic, diplomatic and institutional ties to forge a cohesive alliance of nation-states with a truly global outlook.

There is an online petition, and when I checked a few minutes ago 273,872 people had signed it.  Not insignificant numbers, although the total population of the four countries is over 125 million people.

I’m interested for multiple reasons:

  • I’m fascinated by British imperial history, think that in large part it is something to be proud of, and find cross-country comparisons of the experiences of other former British territories helps shed light on our own history,
  • 50 years ago I’d probably have found the CANZUK proposition almost self-evidently sensible (and at least around the movement of people it more or less described how things had been, at least among Australia, New Zealand and the UK since European settlement here),
  • My scepticism around the economic impact of New Zealand’s immigration policies, going back at least as far as the immediate post World War Two period.

On top of which, I discovered recently that one of the more vocal champions of CANZUK is a pro-Brexit British economist (New Zealand born apparently) who is related to my wife.  He takes every opportunity to champion the cause, as this tweet from earlier this morning.

lilico

There has been some public opinion polling on the CANZUK idea, and the movement really rather liked the results.    This was the question (for New Zealand)

“At present,citizens of the European Union have the right to live and work freely in other European Union countries. Would you support or oppose similar rights for New Zealand citizens to live and work in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, with citizens of  Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom granted reciprocal rights to live and work in New Zealand?”

And this chart summarised the answers.

CANZUK

I wrote about the CANZUK proposal last year, when I observed (of the people-movement element of the proposal)

I’ve never been quite sure what to make of the CANZUK cause. I read a lot of imperial/Commonwealth history, and ideas like this sort of free movement area among the old ‘white Dominions’ are strikingly reminiscent of calls for an imperial federation or, much later, for imperial trade preferences (which became a big thing as the UK moved away from free trade itself). I could be a little provocative and suggest that is wasn’t entirely dissimilar to the sort of immigration policies New Zealand and Australia ran until a few decades ago, that could be – not entirely inaccurately – characterised as “white Australia” or “white New Zealand” policies.   …..even as an example of Commonwealth sentiment, not even South Africa – let alone Zimbabwe, Kenya or Namibia – appears in the CANZUK proposal.

Of course, there is a pretty straightforward answer. Almost invariably, public opinion in almost any country is going to be more open to large scale (or at least unrestricted) migration when it involves culturally similar countries than when it involves culturally dissimilar ones. In fact, there are good arguments that, if there are gains from immigration they could be greatest from people with similar backgrounds (and of course counter-arguments to that). Reframe the question as “would you support reciprocal work and residence rights among New Zealand, France, Belgium and Italy?”, and I suspect the support found in the CANZUK poll would drop pretty substantially – my pick would be something no higher than 50 per cent. Reframe it again to this time include Costa Rica, Iran, and Ecuador (let alone Bangladesh, India, and China – three very large, quite poor, countries) and people will start looking at you oddly, and the numbers will drop rapidly towards the total ACT Party vote (less than 1 per cent from memory).

And thus my own ambivalence about the CANZUK proposition. If I were a Canadian (of otherwise similar Anglo background to my own) I’d say yes. The historical and sentimental ties across these four countries – less so Canada – mean something to me. I’d probably even add the US into the mix. And across Australia, Canada, and the UK incomes and productivity levels are pretty similar – although the prediction would still presumably be that there would be an increased net flow of people from the UK to Australia (in particular) and Canada.

But I’m a New Zealander, and for us it would appear that there are two forces in conflict.  The ability to move freely to the UK or Canada might be a real gain to some New Zealanders –  as the ability to go to Australia has been over the decades –  but the quid pro quo could be that a lot more Brits could move here.

As it is, I’ve repeatedly noted that my economics of immigration argument doesn’t distinguish between whether the migrants come from Birmingham, Brisbane, Bangalore, Buenos Aires, or Beijing. We’ve made life tougher (poorer, less productive) for ourselves by the repeated waves of migrants since World War Two – in the early decades, predominantly from the UK, and in the last quarter century more evenly spread. Even though we are now materially poorer than the UK, enough people from the UK still regard New Zealand as attractive, that free movement – the CANZUK proposition – would probably see a big increase in the number of Brits moving here (big by our standards, not theirs). That might be good for them – that’s up to them – but wouldn’t be good for us. Perhaps the effect would be outweighed by more New Zealanders moving to the UK long-term, but I’d be surprised if that were so.

The CANZUK proposition is an interesting one, and is worth further debate. Apart from anything else, it might tease out what people think about nationhood, identity, and some of the non-economic factors around immigration.  ….at present public opinion appears to be strongly in favour, but on the specific question asked in isolation. It would be interesting to know, if at all, how responses would change if the option was free CANZUK movement on top of existing immigration policy, or (to the extent of the new CANZUK net flow) in partial substitution for existing immigration policy. The two might have quite different economic and social implications.

The CANZUK movement does appear to have an element about it – at least among some British advocates –  of an outward-oriented replacement for the EU.  But there are supporters elsewhere.   Most notably, the main opposition political party in Canada –  currently leading in the polls –  has CANZUK as one of its principal foreign policy platforms.     Closer to home, David Seymour has expressed support and –  somewhat to my surprise – I learned from the CANZUK website that Simon Bridges had done so too (pretty lukewarmly I suspect?).  The CANZUK people point out that even the Labour-New Zealand First coalition agreement has a provision that might be thought to have something to do with CANZUK (emphasis added).

Work towards a Free Trade Agreement with the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union and initiate Closer Commonwealth Economic Relations.

What of the other dimensions of the proposal (free trade and foreign policy)?  My own position is that free trade is a good thing, and should try it.     We should remove all remaining tariffs, but not just on imports from Canada and the UK (we already have CER with Australia), but from anywhere and everywhere.  Doing so would benefit consumers.  And I’m sceptical of preferential trade agreements, and see little reason (sadly) to suppose that Canada (in particular) or the UK would be at all keen on open access for New Zealand agricultural exports.

And what of foreign policy?  I’d like to think that the four countries would stand together on many issues (bearing in mind that the North Atlantic and Arctic aren’t terribly important to New Zealand) but for now the four governments show little ability (interest?) in a common approach to, for example, the People’s Republic of China. In New Zealand’s case, not even any support when the PRC authorities abduct Canadia citizens.

Fairly or not, there is quite a sense about the CANZUK cause that is redolent of the 1950s.  I don’t mean that in a particularly negative sense –  there was, after all, a great deal to like about New Zealand’s relative economic performance in the 1950s, and about the still mostly quite close ties among the four countries, including the considerable freedom of movement (then again, Suez was hardly a great advert for NZ/Australia/UK foreign policy coordination).    As a citizen and voter, I feel a considerable affection for each of those countries –  probably more so than for any other countries, decent, worthy and prosperous as many of them are –  but it is the 2010s (almost the 2020s) not the 1950s.

And, at least from a New Zealand perspective, we’d be better off  –  economically, and probably on other dimensions – with materially fewer migrants, not with schemes that might only increase our average net non-citizen migrant flow (and reduce our ability to manage the flows, in a country where the housing and urban land market in particular is badly dysfunctional).

 

Recessions and revenue

Just a quick post today, prompted by yesterday afternoon’s about the change in the formulation of the debt target foreshadowed by the Minister of Finance.

My proposition was that, with a target range 10 percentage points wide, governments will be expected to stay within that range (more or less) all the time.  And that will means that in normal times –  proxied by when the output gap (perhaps adjusted for the terms of trade) is around zero –  the government will still have to hold pretty closely to the 20 per cent of GDP target midpoint.  They might be able to safely fluctuate between 19 per cent and 21 per cent (or thereabouts) but anything much beyond that would run a material risk of moving outside the target range –  prompting either procyclical fiscal adjustments or the abandonment of the target – the next time a reasonably significant recession hit.    That risk is compounded by the fact that output gaps –  and detrended terms of trade –  are only really best guesses in the first place.  When we think the output gap is zero, hindsight might reveal it to have been +2 per cent of GDP –  increasing the probable revenue losses when the economy next takes a hit.

I noted in yesterday’s post that New Zealand government tax revenue had fallen by around 6 percentage points of GDP in the period from the peak in the years just prior to the recession to the trough in the years just after.   Not all of that was cyclical –  there were some tax cuts just prior to the recession, and again in late 2010 –  but much of it probably was.  And whether or not the revenue loss was the automatic stabilisers at work or discretionary policy changes, a debt target would have constrained choices (on the tax side) that governments of the day had thought appropriate.    And my more general point was that a couple of years in which taxes/GDP were a couple of percentage points lower than normal –  adding to the debt –  shouldn’t be thought exceptional.

But I thought I should check that, and so I dug out the data on government current revenue (mostly taxes) as a per cent of GDP, to see what had happened in other countries in and around the 2008/09 recession.   Here is the change by country (lowest year just after the recession less highest year just prior).

rev

New Zealand –  which did have a pretty severe recession –  had the fourth biggest reduction in revenue as a share of GDP.  I guess that was exaggerated by the effect of the discretionary changes.

But what really interested me was that I noticed a number for the euro-area as a whole.    Revenue as a share of GDP had barely changed, in aggregate across the whole area.  The whole area, of course, had monetary policy adjustment open to it, but individual countries that are in the euro-area did not.

But the median fall in the share of revenue to GDP for OECD countries not in the euro area was 2.9 percentage points.  On the other hand, the reduction for the median euro-area country was only 0.7 percentage points.   I guess that was a mix of crisis countries, indebted countries, the Maastricht fiscal rules, or whatever.  But given the limitations of monetary policy, it hardly seems like an optimal adjustment: automatic stabilisers (in mostly quite high tax countries) should probably have generated more of a fall just on their own.

Anyway, it left me pretty comfortable that my ad hoc suggestion that the government needs to plan around its fiscal target on the basis that a serious recession could easily knock a couple of percentage points of GDP off revenue for a couple of years at least, which in turn would add to the debt.   If they don’t do so, they could find themselves engaged in pro-cyclical fiscal adjustment, which will be even more problematic in the next recession, given how much closer to the limits of conventional monetary policy we (and other countries) are likely to be.

A useful but modest step forward on fiscal management

A year ago the Minister of Finance gave a pre-Budget speech in which he restated the fiscal rules Labour and the Greens had campaigned on.  Among them

We will reduce the level of net core Crown debt to 20 percent of GDP within five years of taking office.

Here was what I said at the time

In general, debt targets –  with relatively short time horizons to achieve them –  aren’t very sensible as operational rules.   Such a rule can mean that a few fairly small, essentially random, forecasting errors in the same direction can cumulate to produce a need for quite a bit of (perhaps unnecessary) adjustments to spending or revenue.  More seriously, recessions can throw things badly off course for a while, and risk pushing a government into a corner –  either abandon the target just as debt is rising, or fallback on pro-cyclical (recession exacerbating) fiscal adjustments –  even though, in across-the-cycle terms, the government’s finances might be just fine.  No one looks forward to a recession, but governments (and central banks) need to work on the likelihood that another will be along before too long.   Natural disasters –  the other shock the Minister mentioned –  can have the same effect.

I see I omitted to mention that other pro-cyclical fiscal risk that a (point) debt target exacerbates: the temptation to spend up further in good times to keep debt from undershooting the target.

And so I am pleased see reports today of another pre-Budget speech from the (same) Minister of Finance, in which he said

The Government will scrap specific debt targets in favour of moving towards a target range, Finance Minister Grant Robertson has announced.

The current target, part of Labour’s Budget Responsibility Rules, is to reduce net debt to 20 percent of GDP by 2021/22. When that target is achieved, it will be replaced with a debt range.

Robertson did not specify what this was, but said Treasury had provided him with advice.

“At this point we are looking at a range of 15-25 percent of GDP, based on advice from the Treasury,” Robertson said.

Does it create risks?  Yes, it does, and that is why I would still favour dropping debt targets altogether.  There will be increased pressure for more spending up front.  But, operated responsibly, the proposed new debt-range provides only trivially greater amounts of flexibility.    Why?  Because no one ever expects the government will keep debt/GDP at a constant point every single year, but if they take the new range seriously people will expect them to keep within the sort of range all the time.  It is wide enough, it should be able to encompass the effects of most booms and busts, but only if in normal times debt/GDP is kept close to the midpoint of the range.  You probably give yourself a degree of freedom to have debt fluctuate between 19 and 21 per cent in normal times, but you always have to remember that a recession could be along any time.  A couple of years in which revenue is 2 percentage points of GDP below average and you will be on course for the top of the debt target range pretty quickly if your starting point is anything much higher than 21 per cent.  Tax revenue as a share of GDP fell from 31 per cent in the year to March 2006 to 25 per cent in the year to March 2011, and (a) while the economy started from a materially positive output gap, and (b) there were some tax cuts, a fall of a couple of percentage points of GDP is easy to envisage, and necessary to plan around.

My own preferred approach, without a debt target, is as I outlined it last year.

Personally, I would be much more comfortable with only two key quantitative fiscal rules:

  • a commitment to maintaining the operating balance in modest surplus, once allowance is made for the state of the economic cycle (cyclical adjustment in other words) and for extraordinary one-off items (eg serious natural disasters), and
  • something about size of government.    Simply as an economist I don’t have a strong view on what the number should be, although as I’ve noted previously it is curious that the current left-wing government, arguing all sorts of past underspends, was elected on a fiscal plan that promised spending as a share of GDP that undershot their own medium-term benchmark (that around 30 per cent of GDP).

The suggested fiscal surplus rule isn’t an ironclad protection (any more than a real-world inflation target in a Policy Targets Agreement is).  There are uncertainties about the state of the cycle and how best to do the cyclical adjustment, and incentives to try to game what might be counted as an “extraordinary one-off”.   That is why the fiscal numbers and Budget plans will always need scrutinising and challenging.  But if followed, more or less, such a rule would be sufficient to see debt/GDP ratios typically falling in normal times, and to avoid things going badly wrong over a period of several decades.  That is probably about as much as one can realistically hope for.

The focus would be on the first of those, the structural balance rule.

Part of the necessary scrutiny and challenge would be provided by that fiscal council the government consulted on last year, but about which nothing has been heard for months.

The PRC, trade, foreign investment etc

Parliament’s Justice Committee today has the second (and final?) public hearing of submissions on their foreign interference inquiry.  The first such session was described to me by someone who watched it all as “just hopeless”, and accounts I’ve read don’t suggest any reason to doubt that take.  If there were signs of seriousness about the process, they seemed to be about trying to play down, or pretend there was nothing to, concerns around the PRC.   The acting chair had introduced the hearing by suggesting she would prefer not to hear names.     Her party, earlier this week, launched a foreign affairs discussion document in which they talked of their “friends in Beijing”.  What hope for a serious investigation.

Reports this morning suggest the Committee is just about to have another acting chair, with previous acting chair Maggie Barry deciding to leave the committee, and substantive chair Raymond Huo (who initially opposed any public submissions, claiming government departments could say all there was to be said) having belatedly recused himself, as someone about whom concerns had been raised, notably in Anne-Marie Brady’s paper.  In another sign of the unseriousness of the exercise, a senior National MP on the Justice Committee told the committee two weeks ago, when Brady appeared, that he hadn’t even read the paper.  I might not have expected all MPs to have done so –  although all should –  but a senior MP, actually sitting on the committee, part of National’s international affairs team…..

It is reported that National MP Chris Bishop is to be the new acting chair.   As I happened I was engaged with Bishop briefly on this issue on Twitter yesterday, when he politely took exception to my suggestion that the inquiry, especially around the PRC, was really a faux inquiry.   His claim was that

bish.png

and went on to ask the basis for my concern.   240 characters really isn’t the length for such discussions, so I simply pointed him to my submission to the inquiry, and in addition to some of the points above noted the Jian Yang situation.  Perhaps he was in earnest.  Perhaps his acting chairmanship will really mark some sort of turning point in the inquiry.  It would be great if it did, but it is hard to have any optimism given how deeply entrenched, especially in the two main parties, the wish to pretend there are no problems, and to just get on treating the PRC as a normal country (“our friends”) has become, from Jacinda Ardern and Simon Bridges down.

There was another example of the establishment approach in this area in the Herald yesterday, in a column by lobbyist and former trade negotiator Charles Finny, offering to “make sense of the US-China dispute”.  Par for the course for the Herald, general readers would not have any idea that Finny serves on the Advisory Board of the (largely taxpayer-funded) New Zealand China Council, set up to champion closer ties with the PRC (and never known to have said anything critical of the regime), and he is also chair of Education NZ, the government body charged with promoting export education, much of it to the PRC.   On a good day, Finny appears to be alive to some of the risks around the PRC –  he did after all go on national TV and suggest that he was always careful what he said around Jian Yang and Raymond Huo given their apparent close ties to the PRC embassy – and I suspect he is mostly a true-believer in the mantra of the “rules-based order” and of the ever-increasing web of preferential trade agreements New Zealand is party to.

But his “making sense of the US-China dispute” column didn’t make sense of it at all, because it totally failed to place the rising tensions in a wider strategic or political context.  It was, on his telling, all the fault of the Americans (“the Trump Administration’s ‘America First’ mentality), and not at all about choices made by the PRC.  Later in the article, Finny does actually note first that some of the approaches that bother him began under Obama (judges for the WTO), and that there isn’t necessarily much difference between the approach being adopted by Trump and that by Democratic Party contenders, which you would think might matter.  But instead all we get is a worry that New Zealand could see

enormous pressure on New Zealand to stop buying Chinese technology or to co-operate with Chinese universities or research entities,

(Shouldn’t any decent media outlet have thought at that point that Finny should have to disclose his Education NZ and China Council involvements?)

Finny’s approach seems to be that no matter the character of the regime, we should simply keeping on doing more trade, buying more technology, allowing more investment.  There seems to be no sense at all of anything around security risks –  be it Huawei, Hikvision or whoever –  no sense that, however the New Zealand government labelled it in a treaty, the PRC is no market-economy, but one with an ever-increasing role for a state with totalitarian aspirations and abilities.   Simply no recognition of the way the PRC has sought to inject its pernicious influence –  and don’t pretend it is just another state – into the affairs of all sorts of other countries, including our own, including our own ethnic Chinese New Zealand citizens.   Now, you might think Trump is going about tackling these challenges in a poor way – or perhaps won’t even follow through –  but that is a quite different matter from whether there is a real issue that needs addressing.   Finny –  and the New Zealand political establishment –  would, it appears, prefer to pretend otherwise.  And don’t pretend –  as some try to –  that this is just about another big country getting richer and stronger.   There would be nothing like the level of concern there now is across the US political spectrum if China were opening up, reducing the power of the state, reducing the power of the Party, stopping the threats to Taiwan, stopping corroding freedom in Hong Kong, demolishing artificial islands in the South China Sea, not engaging in state-sponsored intellectual property theft, not imprisoning a million Uighurs, not attempting to exert control over diasporas and foreign Chinese-language media, and so on.    Those are the sorts of things that should be concerning our MPs and ministers, but not one will utter a word.      (And by contrast I listened to an interview yesterday with Pete Buttigieg, one of the fairly left-wing Democratic contenders.  I can’t imagine he agrees with Donald Trump on almost anything, and yet on China and the risk and threats he was fluent and serious.  I was impressed.)

As it happened, a reader this morning posted a link to a column from the New York Times by the (often rather breathlessly enthusiastic) champion of globalisation Tom Friedman on the US/China issue.  I don’t suppose he is generally much of a Trump fan either, and yet

A U.S. businessman friend of mine who works in China remarked to me recently that Donald Trump is not the American president America deserves, but he sure is the American president China deserves.

and, for example,

But when Huawei is competing on the next generation of 5G telecom with Qualcomm, AT&T and Verizon — and 5G will become the new backbone of digital commerce, communication, health care, transportation and education — values matter, differences in values matters, a modicum of trust matters and the rule of law matters. This is especially true when 5G technologies and standards, once embedded in a country, become very hard to displace.

And then add one more thing: The gap in values and trust between us and China is widening, not narrowing. For decades, America and Europe tolerated a certain amount of cheating from China on trade, because they assumed that as China became more prosperous — thanks to trade and capitalist reforms — it would also become more open politically. That was happening until about a decade ago.

But, as he goes on to note, it simply isn’t now.  And New Zealand politicians seem to refuse to confront the implications of that, accentuating local issues that were already building (as one small but prominent example, Jian Yang was already in country –  told by Beijing to lie about his past –  and in Parliament before Xi Jinping took the top job).

In somewhat the same vein the government has a consultation open at present (submissions close tomorrow) on possible changes to the overseas investment regime.  I took the opportunity to make a short submission for two reasons:

  • first, I generally favour greater openness to foreign investment, but
  • second, the discussion document dealt (rather superficially) with national security issues and how the rules might best handle those.

These days, New Zealand does not get much foreign direct investment –  and especially not much in the way of greenfields new developments.  I don’t think the screening etc regime is the main reason –  mostly, I suspect, we don’t have that much foreign investment because (a) there are few opportunities here, and (b) for the same sorts of reasons business investment generally has been weak for decades (high cost of capital, high real exchange rate, high taxes on business profits –  in that case, especially for foreign investors).  But I’d generally favour a more liberal environment, for almost all industries and for investors of almost all countries.

It is also worth recognising that most of any benefit (to productivity in New Zealand for example) from foreign investment will come from investment by firms based in rich and advanced countries.  Of course, there might be rare exceptions –  a firm based in Zambia, Laos or El Salvador –  but they will be exceptionally rare (the best ideas, technologies, management systems etc) will be in the rich countries –  part of why they got, and stay, rich.  So I’d favour a pretty-much open slather approach to foreign investment –  existing assets or new –  for investors based in rich countries (the OECD membership might be a decent starting point, and one could add in places like Singapore and Taiwan.

For most of the poorer or smaller countries, I really don’t care much what the rules are.  Probabilistically, there is almost nothing at stake (at least in economic terms) in maintaining restrictions on Zambia, Laos, El Salvador (or 100 others) if that is what the political process demands.  But, equally, there isn’t much risk or downside to opening up to them either, especially if one is focused on the benefit of New Zealanders being (generally) able to sell to the highest bidder.

There are various odious regimes in the world.  Most them don’t matter much to New Zealand at all (thinking places like Equatorial Guinea).  But the PRC does and in my view we should –  while the regime remains as it is – be treating investment from there quite differently, for various reasons.    One is a straightforward economic one.  Almost any large PRC firm is either an SOE or has a significant element of state/Party control to it.  We spent years here trying to reduce the hand of the state in direct business operations in New Zealand.  State entities typically don’t run businesses well, don’t allocate investment efficiently, and so on.  There is no more likelihood (to put it mildly) that PRC state-controlled companies will do so than the New Zealand government ones will –  and at least the New Zealand government ones are ultimately answerable to New Zealanders.  Such investment is likely to be a net negative for New Zealand even if the price paid to the initial New Zealand vendor is higher than that vendor could have got from another –  private –  purchaser, whether from New Zealand or another country.

But the deeper reason is that the PRC is a big and powerful totalitarian state, that has repeatedly displayed aggressive intent, which has values antithetical to those of most New Zealanders.   Individual PRC buyers may well be perfectly decent well-intentioned people –  as plenty of 1930s Germans were too –  but a totalitarian state has, and repeatedly demonstrated, its leverage over its own people, by fair means and (too often) foul.  We would simply be ill-advised to allow PRC-associated interests to have significant investments in many sectors in New Zealand.  One could think of media or telecom companies, or tech firms.    The PRC banks operating here should be a matter of concern, especially if they get materially larger than they are now.   But the concern should range wider.  For example, the greater the control PRC interests have of elements of the dairy industry, the more difficult New Zealand might find it to be handle the sort of economic coercion the PRC has attempted to engage in re various countries in recent years.

And, of course, to circle back to my earlier point, it is not as if the PRC is one of the world’s advanced economies.  Productivity levels languish far behind even New Zealand’s modest levels, and everyone recognises the dependence the regime has had on industrial espionage.  Deep pockets aside –  with a mix of market and non-market motives –  how much genuine benefit to New Zealanders is there likely to be from PRC foreign investment over time?

It is possible that this sort of restrictive regime could come at some economic cost, in terms of lost productivity opportunities for New Zealand. My sense is that it would probably be quite a small cost, but we can’t be sure.  Perhaps more importantly, many precautions have a cost –  whether it be a national defence force, Police, anti-virus software, or a lock on your front door.  The PRC is a threat to New Zealand and countries like us, and we need to be willing to spend some resources (perhaps sacrifice some short-term opportunities) to establish some resilience to those threats.

But, of course, our elected “leaders” and business establishment figures have no interest in any of this.  For them, it seems, the character of the regime matters not a jot, it demonstrated track record at home, abroad, and in New Zealand matter not a jot.  There are deals to be done, donations to be collected, and  –  if there are any risks –  well that will be someone else’s problem another day.  And in the process they’ve allowed our political system to become corrupted, indifferent to the character of the regime, indifferent to the values of New Zealanders.  But their “friends in Beijing” are no doubt happy.

 

(Un)successful public policy

Yesterday afternoon I saw this in my Twitter feed

My first thought was along the lines of “well, I guess there is nothing about New Zealand economic policy”, (a) so poor has our long-term performance been, and (b) because surely outcomes matter?.   But I’m a policy geek sort of person, ANZSOG is chaired by our very own State Services Commissioner, and ANU is the top-ranked university in Australasia, so I clicked the link to see what examples of successful policymaking in New Zealand they’d found. To my surprise I found this

New Zealand’s economic turnaround: How public policy innovation catalysed economic growth (PDF, 0.2MB)Michael Mintrom and Madeline Thomas

(Downloads of all the individual chapters appear to be free, and there are pieces on ACC, early childhood education, Kiwisaver, nuclear-free New Zealand, and so on, some of which may interest some readers.)

But I was a bit flummoxed even by the title of this economic chapter.  I recognised the “public policy innovation” –  thirty years on I still support most of it –  but the idea of an “economic turnaround” or “catalysed economic growth” seemed, to say the least, at odds with the data.

Mintrom is a public policy academic, now at Monash University in Melbourne. He worked for The Treasury for a few years in the late 1980s before heading off to do his PhD.  But, from the look of his publications, he seems to know a lot about public policy processes, but not necessarily a great deal about economic growth or overall economic performance.  Thomas is his research assistant, with a psychology degree and some experience working on social policy with local governments.

When I got into the chapter itself it turned out the authors were focusing on a handful of specific initiatives undertaken in the late 1980s and early 1990s:

  • reduction of market interventions (controls, subsidies, import restrictions etc),
  • creation of SOEs and subsequent privatisations,
  • simplification of the tax system and introduction of GST, and
  • passing responsibility for monetary policy to an independent Reserve Bank.

And they lay out early on how they define success.  Their first criterion is endurance, and thus they argue that “these policy innovations have now remained in place for decades. Thus, judged by endurance, they have been highly successful.”

There, it would appear, speaks someone more interested in processes than outcomes.  After all, the broad range of policies the 1980s and 90s reforms replaced –  exchange controls, heavy import protection, monetary policy set by ministers – also lasted for decades, and were generally not accounted a success.   The Soviet Union managed 70 years.

But the authors offer three other perspectives from which to view the success of the policy programme.  There was something called the “programmatic perspective”, which seems to be encapsulated in these two sentences:

A highly coherent theory of change guided the development of these policy innovations.  After a relatively short time, it was clear the changes were producing beneficial outcomes.

Then there is the “process perspective”, where they claim (and I mostly wouldn’t disagree) that “the policy innovations were well designed and generally well managed”.

And, thirdly, there is the political perspective, which they describe as “more complicated”.  That, presumably, does duty not only for the deep divisions that opened up in the Labour Party, Jim Anderton’s breakaway, and the divisions that opened up in National, culminating in the founding of New Zealand First, to all of which one could add the public sense that politicians hadn’t been straight with them (many readers will be too young to recall that in 1987 Labour published its manifesto the week after the election) and the replacement of FPP by MMP (you may think that change good, but it simply wouldn’t have happened without the ructions of the previous few years).

Remarkably, in a chapter focused on economic policy and –  at least according to the title –  economic growth, the authors take as their “starting point” several very positive assessments of the reforms written from 1994 to 1996.    Some of those articles are valuable, but each was written with the benefit of almost no distance or perspective, and were written a quarter of a century ago.  I found it remarkable that in a chapter about New Zealand’s economic growth, there were no references at all to the literature over at least the last decade about New Zealand’s disappointing productivity performance (sometimes, but quite wrongly, characterised as the New Zealand “productivity paradox”).    Those concerns, from extremely orthodox sources, have been around much longer than that: I happened to be dipping into the OECD’s 2000 report on New Zealand yesterday and found explicit concerns there about the failure of the New Zealand economy to converge, highlighting in particular the disappointing productivity growth.

The first part of the chapter is devoted to rehearsing some of the political and economic context for the reforms –  with which I mostly have only relatively minor quibbles – before they move on to focus on the four areas of reform (listed above).  Again, as pure description, it isn’t too bad –  with the odd annoying mistake (eg the exchange rate was not pegged to the US dollar in 1984, the price freeze had been lifted before the 1984 election), but whenever there is any sort of evaluative tone it is almost always very upbeat.  And perhaps only a young Treasury official from those days could describe, with a straight face, the Treasury’s approach to other departments as “Treasury analysts showed a great desire to….seek insight from colleagues in other departments”.

There is a variety of odd claims.  Thus,

The move to a more independent Reserve Bank came after several years of a floating New Zealand dollar, which was also viewed as a key element of market liberalisation; it was therefore uncontroversial.

Where did they get that from?  The Reserve Bank Act was intensely controversial at the time, with considerable opposition (wrongheadly in my view, but it was there nonetheless) from most prominent academic economists in New Zealand and some vocal business lobby groups.  The authors talk up the legislation passing Parliament unanimously (perhaps so if Jim Anderton was away that day), but if they’d done even the slightest refreshing of memories, they’d have been aware that the legislation divided both major party caucuses.  National – in Opposition – voted for the legislation, but Ruth Richardson’s former economic adviser recorded later that the vote in favour at caucus secured a majority of only one: Sir Robert Muldoon (opposed) was away seriously ill, and Winston Peters (opposed) for some reason skipped the meeting.   And I’ve perhaps mentioned before that in every subsequent election –  down to and including 2017 – one or other political party was campaigning on a platform of changing the Policy Targets Agreement or the Reserve Bank Act.

There are other odd claims.   The authors are mildly circumspect about aspects of the privatisation programme (“some sales were poorly managed”), but then cite as evidence of the “policy success” of the Labour government’s privatisation programme, that the succeeding National government did more privatisations.

The authors begin their Analysis and Conclusions section suggesting that in the early 80s New Zealand was heading towards “economic collapse”, but that is simply overblown political rhetoric for a process of stagnation, fairly high and variable inflation, and rising debt.  The broad direction of policy was still towards liberalisation, but it was a halting, half-hearted, and inconsistent process.  A crisis it wasn’t –  even if forced devaluations make good headlines.  Thus, the authors note that “unemployment grew” and yet the historical backdating of the HLFS suggests that the unemployment rate in June 1984 was 4.4 per cent, almost identical to the current rate.

What else struck me?  There was the claim –  about the 80s period –  that “through listening and working with others – even those who might have strong objections to a proposals –  it is possible for advocates of change to improve policy design and build a strong colation to support change”.  No doubt that is true generally, but it bears very resemblance to anyone else’s impressions of 1980s/90s reform period –  it was. after all, Roger Douglas, who championed the approach of “crash through or crash”.

Our authors carry this lesson forward:

“subsequent New Zealand governments have achieved important reforms while moving more slowly and working to ensure implementation is well managed. For example, the National Party-led coalition of 2009-17 [wasn’t a coalition, and it was 2008-17, but I guess those are details] established a new program of privatisation of government assets. Important work was done that drew on lessons from hre past and met considerable success.”

You might –  as I did –  have supported those more recent partial privatisations, but lets remember how small they were.  One of the companies involved was already market-listed (Air New Zealand) and all are still majority state-owned.    And the list of “important reforms” undertaken by that more recent government was limited, to say the very least.

The very final (short) paragraph begins this way.

In sum,we judge New Zealand’s economic turnaround to have been a major public policy success. Innovative public policy changes catalysed economic growth.

And yet, remarkably, in the entire chapter there is not a single number or chart or even a discussion of the specifics of economic growth. Not one.  And despite (rightly) lauding the removal of protection and subsidies, no mention of the fact that foreign trade as a share of GDP is no higher now than it was in 1984.   Absent evidence of this “catalysed economic growth”, perhaps we are just supposed to imagine it, and somehow feel better for the thought?   But I hope this isn’t how ANZSOG helps train our public servants.

My own take on the reform and stabilisation effort of the 1980s/90s is roughly as follows:

  • stabilisation was a major success.  We have low and stable inflation, low and fairly stable government debt.  We also have a considerable measure of financial stability.  For all that, we should be truly grateful.  But we should also recognise that (a) low and stable became a pretty global phenomenon (especially in the advanced world) around that time, and (b) that various other well-managed countries (eg Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland) have much the same sort of fiscal record we do.  That leaves me sceptical of stories which put too much emphasis on specific New Zealand events, circumstances, law, individuals, or policy processes.    Moreover –  and I don’t think this appears in the chapter at all – we have greatly benefited from a big increase in the terms of trade (reversing the couple of decade decline that policymakers from the late 60s to mid 80s had to cope with),
  • many of the specific reforms (including those Mintrom and Thomas deal with) served us well.   Lower import protection, a well-designed GST, injecting much greater efficiency into state trading operations and a bunch of others benefited most New Zealanders.
  • but that isn’t true of all the reforms.  One might focus in on the RMA and associated provisions which have given us among the most unaffordable house and urban land prices in the developed world, or one might look at the tax treatment of savings.  And then there are the immigration policy reforms.
  • and, as honest observers have known for 20 years, there has simply not been the productivity turnaround that champions of the reforms hoped for at the time (and there is also no reason to suppose that problem is just that we didn’t engage in radical enough reform.)

Here is a table I was working on the other day, comparing average productivity in New Zealand with that of a leading bunch of OECD countries.

prod 1

The book was an ANZSOG project.  Here is labour productivity for New Zealand relative to Australia, indexed to when the New Zealand domestic data start in 1989.

prod 2.png

I reckon there is a plausible argument that the whole reform programme taken together slowed the rate of decline in New Zealand’s relative fortunes (although even that isn’t clear-cut: the rate of decline slowed, but I’ve not seen any careful attempt to assess how much of that was policy and how much about, say, improvements in the terms of trade).

But that isn’t the case Mintrom and Thomas attempt to make.  Judged by economic growth outcomes –  the sort of criterion their title asks us to use –  the programme just cannot be judged a great success. Perhaps the processes were good in some respects, and there was certainly a lot of intellectual rigour behind some of the reforms. It remains a fascinating case study in concentrated far-reaching reform.  But the productivity results really suggest that the episode belongs in another book, about the disappointing results despite the very best of intentions.  Those are salutary lessons policy advisers need to be trained in too.

How we –  certainly anyone who supported, voted for, worked on the reforms –  wish the outcomes had been different –  much better.   But they weren’t.  That is a failure –   uncomfortable as it is, there is no other word for it –  politicians and policy advisers have to grapple with honestly.