Something a bit odd in the data

I haven’t had time to look closely at last week’s GDP data, but as a last post for the year I thought I’d have a very quick look at the productivity (real GDP per hour worked) numbers that the various recent SNZ releases (national accounts and HLFS) suggest.

Over the years, I’ve often used as a proxy – SNZ not publishing an official series – a measure calculated by averaging the two quarterly GDP measures and dividing them by (an index from) an average of hours worked from the HLFS and hours paid from the QES. But in periods of lockdowns you really don’t want to be using hours paid, because things like the wage subsidy schemes were designed to get people paid even if they weren’t able to work, or their firm wasn’t able to generate much output. So in this chart I’ve simply used the average of the two GDP measures and the HLFS measure (self-reporting respondents) of hours worked.

This one starts from back just prior to the 2008/09 recession. As you see, the decade or so leading up to Covid wasn’t a good time for labour productivity growth in New Zealand (something not much more than 0.5 per cent per annum). And then came Covid and all the disruptions (and policy stimulus).

prod dec 21

Here is the same chart starting just prior to Covid (2019Q4).

prod dec 21 2

Perhaps unsurprisingly there has been quite a lot of variability in this measure of productivity, in ways that really don’t make a great of sense (to me).    There is always some variability –  one reason for using average measures –  but you can see from the first chart that the last couple of years look quite different, so far.  That “so far” is important, as there will be revisions to the GDP numbers for several years to come –  although none to the hours numbers (and who really knows how people were answering in lockdowns).

But if you believe these numbers –  and I recommend that you don’t –  we appear to have found the elixir of New Zealand productivity growth.  First take a global pandemic, then shut the borders, ease monetary policy, throw lots of government money at things, mess up the housing market further, compound it all with huge uncertainty from month to month (sometimes week to week).

Something just doesn’t ring true.  Sure, people find smart ways of doing things from home, but generally you’d have to assume that if the new ways were so great as to be better than what went before in 2019 they’d have been done then.  And no doubt macro policy has given a big boost to overall demand, activity, employment and hours….but this is a productivity measure, and whatever the boost was you’d normally think it would lift demand for people who on average were less productive than what went before.

There are always averaging effects –  in lockdowns perhaps some of the least productive people are disproportionately those who can’t work (waiters, motel cleaners etc) –  but….the picture was already looking surprisingly strong in Q2 this year, when there were hardly any domestic restrictions.

I just don’t believe that the picture represents reality, and that somehow productivity growth has –  after all these decades – started to accelerate.  There have been no micro policies working in that direction –  rather the opposite –  and no one really supposes that forcing businesses not to interact with overseas customers and suppliers etc face to face is good for medium-term productivity.  Add to that all the supply chain problems –  even the small weirdness that USPS no longer delivers to New Zealand –  and it suggests we should be pleasantly surprised if the level of labour productivity now is not lower than it was two years ago.  It just doesn’t make sense to think it is so much higher.  All else equal, the GDP estimates –  and that is all they are, in tough times for measurement and estimation –  look too high.

On which note, I will end the blogging year.

It has been a year of many fewer posts than in most since the blog began.  That was largely down to me getting a cold back in May 2020 from which I never fully recovered, graduating into what the doctor eventually diagnosed (labelled as) chronic fatigue syndrome.  By the standards of what one reads or hears of other people I had a mild version, but for long periods that meant I wasn’t good for much beyond the day to day basics, and sitting in front of a screen for even half an hour was at times astonishingly draining.  An attempt to walk much further than round the block could knock me back, sometimes for weeks.  I’m still not 100 per cent –  still need naps most afternoons – but seem to getting close; perhaps 90 per cent of normal, which is a considerable relief all round.

Having said that I don’t suppose I will drift back into a routine of a post each week day. Posts two or three times a week, supplemented with charts/links on Twitter, seems to be a useful and workable model for now.

13 thoughts on “Something a bit odd in the data

  1. All the Best for the Summer Solstice holidays and the years to come!

    Could the implausibility of the data be a reflection of underestimation of inflation, that is, that the “real” GDP is somwhat closer to nominal than to real-real? Calculation of inflation indices is always more than a bit of a fudge, dependent as it is on the composition and weightings of an indicator basket of goods and services, and how those match the actual consumtion patterns in a society subject in these last two years to some very unusual pressures.

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    • One of several possibilities I guess. It might be that somehow the HLFS is just understating hours worked. There is noise in the series and one v strong could take away the implausible productivity number.

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  2. I think until we can see that stats that include the Auckland lockdown, we won’t know if the GDP figures are dodgy or not. I suspect they are. It’s sort of ironical ..to me at least that we have the Chinese taking genuine steps to rein in their inflated real estate market and their rampant Capitalism which has lead to their household debt hovering around 63% of their total GDP, while here in NZ….Adrian Orr restructures the RB and seems to be looking the other way while our household debt has climbed to about 95% of GDP. Have WE got a problem?

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    • I don’t have vast confidence in SNZ but no I take these as their best estimates for now. It is just that I expect that when we look back 5 yrs from now this won’t have been the dawn of the new golden age of productivity.

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  3. Enjoyed another year of your blog, Michael. I don’t comment much, but always read.

    Sorry to hear about the poor health over the year; look after yourself, and you and family have a great Christmas. Catch you and your blog in the New Year.

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  4. Yes the pungent smell of fresh poop arises from these clearly “too good to be true” claims from this govt. Thanks for going in and digging around.

    By the way, did you try the antihistamine/steroid route with your “long cold”? As in testing to see whether the illness might in fact be an allergy to something you use/eat or something in your environment?

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    • I didn’t. I have had a bit of a history with mysterious bugs, cause never really known but which eventually fully go away again, so the doctor’s view was that this one was probably similar (albeit longer lasting).

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