So much company tax, so little investment

Almost 10 years ago I stumbled on this chart in the background papers to Australia’s tax system review.

Chart 5.11: Corporate tax revenue as a proportion of GDP — OECD 2005

Aus company tax as % of GDP 2008

I was intrigued, and somewhat troubled by it.   New Zealand collected company tax revenue that, as a share of GDP was the second highest of all OECD countries.   And yet New Zealand:

  • didn’t have an unusually large total amount of tax as a share of GDP, and
  • had had quite low rates of business investment –  as a per cent of GDP –  for decades, and
  • as compared to Australia, just a couple of places to the left, New Zealand’s overall production structure was much less capital intensive (mines took a lot of investment).

And, of course, our overall productivity performance lagged well behind.

Partly prompted by the chart, and partly by a move to Treasury at about the same time, I got more interested in the taxation of capital income.   After all, when you tax something heavily you tend to get less of it, and most everyone thought that higher rates of business investment would be a part of any successful lift in our economic performance.  That interest culminated in an enthusiasm for seriously considering a Nordic tax system, in which capital income is deliberately taxed at a lower rate than labour income.  It goes against the prevailing New Zealand orthodoxy –  broad-base, low rate (BBLR) –  but even the 2025 Taskforce got interested in the option.

Flicking through the background document for our own new Tax Working Group the other day I came across this chart (which I haven’t seen get any media attention).

company tax revenue

It is a bit harder to read, but just focus for now on the blue bars.   On this OECD data New Zealand now has company tax revenues that are the highest percentage of GDP of any OECD country.   A footnote suggests that if one nets out the tax the government pays to itself (on businesses it owns), New Zealand drops to only fourth highest but (a) the top 5 blue bars are pretty similar anyway, and (b) it isn’t clear who they have dropped out (if it is just NZSF tax that is one thing, but most government-owned businesses would still exist, and pay tax, if in private ownership).

So for all the talk about base erosion and profit-shifting, and talk of possible new taxes on the sales (not profits) of internet companies, we continue to collect a remarkably large amount of company tax (per cent of GDP).  Indeed, given that our total tax to GDP ratio is in the middle of the OECD pack, we also have one of the very largest shares of total tax revenue accounted for by company taxes.

The Tax Working Group appears to think this is a good thing, observing that it

“suggests that New Zealand’s broad-base low-rate system lives up to its names”

There is some discussion of the trend in other countries towards lowering company tax rates, but nothing I could see on the economics of taxing business/capital income.  It is as if the goose is simply there to be plucked.

There are, of course, some caveats.   Our (now uncommon) dividend imputation system means that for domestic firms owned by New Zealanders, profits are taxed only once.  By contrast, in most countries dividends are taxed again, additional to the tax paid at the company level.    But, of course, in most of those countries, dividend payout ratios are much lower than those in New Zealand, and tax deferred is (in present value terms) tax materially reduced.

And, perhaps more importantly, the imputation system doesn’t apply to foreign investment here at all.   Foreign investment would probably be a significant element in any step-change in our overall economic performance.  And our company tax rates really matters when firms are thinking about whether or not to invest here at all.  And our company tax rates are high, our company tax take is high –  and our rates of business investment are low.  Tax isn’t likely to be the only factor, or probably even the most important –  see my other discussions about real interest and exchange rates – but it might be worth the TWG thinking harder as to whether there is not some connection.

Otherwise, as in so many other areas, we seem set to carry on with the same old approaches and policies and yet vaguely hope that the results will eventually be different.


A couple of Reserve Bank items

I had been meaning to write about a speech given last week by Grant Spencer of the Reserve Bank on so-called “macro-prudential policy”.  It was a thoughtful speech, as befits the man, and the last he will give as a public servant before retiring next week.

That it was thoughtful doesn’t mean that I generally agreed with Spencer’s (personal, rather than institutional) views.  There were at least two important omissions.  First, as it has done over the last half-decade (and more) the Bank continues to grossly underplay the importance of land-use restrictions in accounting for increases in the prices of houses (and particularly the land under them).  Until they get that element of the analysis more central, it is difficult to have much confidence in what they say about housing markets, housing risks, or possible Band-aid regulatory interventions of their own devising.    And second, they constantly ignore the limitations of their own knowledge.  I’m not suggesting for a moment that they are worse than other regulators in this regard –  who all, typically, have the same blindspot –  but it might matter rather more from a regulator than exercises, and wants to be able to continue to exercise, large discretionary intervention powers, with pervasive effects over the lives –  and financing options –  of many New Zealanders.   If they won’t openly acknowledge their own inevitable limitations, and discuss openly how they think about and manage the associated risks, how can we have any real confidence that they aren’t just blundering onwards, fired by good intentions and injunctions to “trust us” rather than by robust analysis.  In respect of both these omissions, I hope –  without much hope –  that the new Governor begins to put the Bank on a better footing.

When someone asked me the other day if there was anything new in the speech, one thing I noticed was how far the Bank’s current senior management appears to have come over the last few months around possible changes to the governance of the Bank’s main functions.   Casual readers might not notice the change, because it is presented as anything but.  Specifically, this is what Spencer had to say.

Given the planned introduction of a new decision making committee (MPC) for monetary policy, the Review should consider establishing a financial policy committee (FPC) for decisions relating to both micro and macro prudential policy. The Reserve Bank has supported a two-committee (MPC/FPC) model in place of the current single Governing Committee, for example in the Bank’s 2017 “Briefing for Incoming Minister”.

Of course, it is only a few months since the Bank’s expressed preference was simply to take the existing internal Governing Committee (the Governor and the deputies/assistant he appoints) and recognise it in statute, as the forum through which the Governor would continue to make final decisions.

And what of the claim that the Bank has –  not just does now –  supported a two-committee model, including in its Briefing to the Incoming Minister late last year?  At very best, that is gilding the lily.

As I noted at the time, both in the main text of that Briefing, and in the fuller appendix (both here) they devoted most of their effort to defending the existing Governing Committee model.    The main alternative they addressed was a Monetary Policy Committee  but even then the most they favoured was enacting the current Governing Committee model, perhaps with a few outsiders appointed by the Governor, and with the Governor remaining the final decisionmaker
“Provided the Governing Committee remains relatively small, we believe it should continue to make decisions by consensus, with the Governor having the final decision if no consensus can be achieved.  “
The only mention of a Financial Policy Committee is (from page 9)

The Reserve Bank considers that some evolution in its decision-making approach may be appropriate.  We recommend that the review of the RBNZ Act be limited to your stated change objectives.  We consider a review along these lines could be completed reasonably quickly and we would be happy to prepare a draft terms of reference, in consultation with the Treasury.  A variety of arrangements are possible and these are discussed, alongside the rationale for the Bank’s preferred model, in Appendix 6.

Other legislative changes that may be desirable over time include:

– Creating separate decision-making committees for monetary and financial policy

Note the suggestion to the Minister to keep the forthcoming review of the Act to the minimum of what Labour had promised (which dealt only with monetary policy), with some vague suggestion that at some time in the future –  but not in this review –  separate committees “may” be appropriate.  It could scarcely be called a full-throated endorsement of change.

Of course, the Bank lost various battles.  The first stage of the review is being led by Treasury (dealing with the monetary policy bits) and the second stage will look at (as yet unidentified issues).   And it seems they must have recognised that the ground is shifting, and that it would be hard to defend the current single decisionmaker models for the Bank’s huge regulatory (policy and operational) powers once momentum gathered behind a committee model for monetary policy.  Whatever the reason, it is a welcome move on the part of the current management.  Of course, we have no idea what the new Governor –  taking office in a few days –  thinks about suggestions to curtail his powers.

And just finally on the speech, one element of good governance is obeying, and respecting, the law.    Once again, Spencer’s speech and press release have been put out under the title “Grant Spencer, Governor”.  He simply isn’t.  At best he is “acting Governor”, a specific provision under the Reserve Bank Act.  A “Governor” has to be appointed for a minimum term of five years.   If it were a lawful appointment, there is nothing shameful in being acting Governor –  the one previous example, Rod Carr for five months in 2002, never purported to be the Governor.   As it is, my analysis stills suggests that the appointment was unlawful, and thus Steven Joyce and the Bank’s Board (by making the appointment) and Grant Robertson (in recognising it) both undermined the law and good governance and marred the end of Spencer’s distinguished career.  At very least, those provisions of the Act should be reviewed as part of Stage 2.

Meanwhile, we are still waiting for the now-overdue results of Stage 1, for the report of the Independent Expert Advisory Panel (which, as far as we can tell, has neither sought submissions nor engaged in consultation) and for the new Policy Targets Agreement which wil guide monetary policy from next week.

Still on matters re the Reserve Bank, there is a column in the Dominion-Post this morning by Rob Stock having a go at the Open Bank Resolution (OBR) and associated hair-cut of creditors and depositors option for handling a failed bank.  Like me –  and many other people, including the IMF and The Treasury –  Stock favours deposit insurance.  But he seems to see deposit insurance and OBR as alternatives, whereas I see them natural complements.  Indeed, the only way I can ever see the OBR instrument being allowed to work, if a substantial bank fails, is if deposit insurance is also in place.

Stock introduces his article with a straw man argument that ordinary depositors can’t really monitor banks and so shouldn’t be exposed to any financial loss if a bank fails.  Not even the first point is really true.  There are, for example, published credit ratings, and any changes in those credit ratings –  at least for major institutions –  get quite a lot of coverage.  A huge amount of information is reduced to a single letter, in a well-articulated series of gradations.   Should one have vast confidence in ratings agencies?  Probably not –  although perhaps not much less than in prudential regulators, based on track records.  But if your bank is heading towards, say, a BBB- rating and you have any material amount of money it would probably be a good idea to consider changing banks, or spreading your money around.    No one thought that South Canterbury Finance or Hanover were the same risk as the ANZ, at least until the deposit guarantee scheme made putting money in SCF rock-solid safe, whereupon many depositors rushed for the higher yields.

But there is a broader point that many risks in life aren’t able to be fully monitored, controlled, hedged, avoided or whatever  One might become a highly-specialised employee in a firm or industry that fails, or is taken out by regulatory changes.  Regions and towns rise and fall, and take house prices with them.  Governments might one day free up land use laws, reducing house and land prices to more normal levels.  Wars and natural disasters happen.  Chronic illness can strike a family. Even a marriage can be hugely risky.    For the median depositor there is typically much less at stake in their bank account (and typical losses –  percentage of liabilities – on failed retail banks aren’t that large).

Are there potential hard cases?  For sure, and Stock cites one of them.   If you’ve just sold your mortgage-free house –  for, say $1 million –  and are settling on another house next week and your bank failed in the course of that week, you could be exposed to quite a loss even though you’d had no desire to be a creditor of the bank.   Cases like that are one reason why I favour the Reserve Bank opening up electronic settlement accounts –  central bank e-cash if you like –  to the general public.  There wouldn’t be much demand, but on those rare occasions like the house settlement example, you might happily pay for the peace of mind of an effective government guarantee.  I’m looking forward to the new Reserve Bank Bulletin article on such matters next month.

I don’t think those few extreme examples warrant full insurance for all individual depositors, no matter the size of their balance.  There are many classes of people struck by not-easily-monitorable illiquid risks (see above) I’d have more sympathy with.  But I’m a political pragmatist, and as I argued previously I just cannot envisage an elected government allowing a major bank to fail, allowing all creditors to be haircut, if there is no protection at all.    That is especially so when, almost by construction, the Reserve Bank –  the government’s agent –  will have failed in its duties (and probably kept crucial information from the public, as in the recent insurance failure case) for the situation to have got to that point.    A full bailout will typically be the path of least resistance.

And a full bailout will mean not just bailing out the grandma with a $30000 term deposit, or the person changing homes with $1m temporarily on deposit, but bailing out wholesale creditors –  domestic and foreign –  with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of exposure.     Do that –  or set up structures that aren’t time-consistent and encourage people to believe in bailouts –  and any market discipline, even by the big end of town, will be very severely eroded.  And, in a crisis, we’ll be transferring taxpayers’ scarce resources to people   including foreign investors – who really should be capable of looking after themselves.  It has happened before and it will happen again.   But deposit insurance –  funded by levies on covered deposits – increases the chances of being able to impose losses on the bigger creditors if things go wrong.

Perhaps OBR would still never be used.  And there are costs to the banks in being pre-positioned for it.  But we shouldn’t easily give in to a view that any money lent to a bank is rock-solid, backed by government guarantees.  It is not as if there aren’t plausible market mechanisms that could deliver much the same result, at some cost to the depositor (eg a bank or money market fund that held only short-dated government or central bank liabilities).   But there is little evidence of any revealed demand for such an asset –  the cost presumably not being worth it to most people, to cover a very small risk.  By contrast, we voluntarily pay for fire or theft insurance –  often to cover what are really quite modest risks.

There may not be any more posts this week (and if there are, they won’t be of any great substance).   I have a couple of other commitments on Thursday and Friday and, as I’m sure many have discovered before me, broken bones seem to sap an astonishing amount of energy for something so small.

Taxes, housing, and economic underperformance

Two local articles on possible tax system/housing connections caught my eye this morning.  One I had quite a lot of sympathy with (and I’ll come back to it), but the other not so much.

On Newsroom, Bernard Hickey has a piece lamenting what he describes in his headline as “Our economically cancerous addiction”.    The phrase isn’t used in the body of the article, but there is this reference: “our national obsession with property investment”.   Bernard argues that the tax treatment of housing “explains much of our [economic]underperformance as a country over the past quarter century”, linking the tax treatment of housing to such indicators (favourites of mine) as low rates of business investment and lagging productivity growth.

Centrepiece of his argument is this chart from the Tax Working Group’s (TWG) discussion document released last week.

TWG chart

Note that, although the label does not say so, this is an attempt to represent the tax rate on real (inflation-adjusted) returns.

It is a variant of one of Treasury’s favourite charts, that they’ve been reproducing in various places for at least a decade.   The TWG themselves don’t seem to make a great deal of it –  partly because, as they note, their terms of reference preclude them from looking at the tax-treatment of owner-occupied housing.  They correctly note –  although don’t use the words –  the gross injustice of taxing the full value of interest income when a large chunk of interest earnings these days is just compensation for inflation, not a gain in purchasing power at all.   And, importantly, the owner-occupied numbers relate only to the equity in houses, but most people get into the housing market by taking on a very large amount of debt.  Since interest on debt to purchase an owner-occupied house isn’t tax-deductible –  matching the fact that the implicit rental income from living in the house isn’t taxed –  any ‘distortion’ at point of entering the market is much less than implied here.

Bear in mind too that very few countries tax owner-occupied housing as many economists would prefer. In some (notably the US) there is even provision to deduct interest on the mortgage for your owner-occupied house.   You –  or Bernard, or the TOP Party –  might dislike that treatment, but it is pretty widespread (and thus likely to reflect some embedded wisdom).  And, as a reminder, owner-occupation rates have been dropping quite substantially over the last few decades –  quite likely a bit further when the latest census results come out.  Perhaps a different tax system would lead more old people –  with lots of equity in a larger house – to downsize and relocate, but it isn’t really clear why that would be a socially desirable outcome, when maintaining ties to, and involvement in, a local community is often something people value,  and which is good for their physical and mental health.

So, let’s set the owner-occupied bit of the chart aside.  It is simply implausible that the tax treatment of owner-occupied houses –  being broadly similar to that elsewhere –  explains anything much about our economic underperformance.  And, as Bernard notes, it isn’t even as if, in any identifiable sense, we’ve devoted too many real resources to housebuilding (given the population growth).

So what about the tax treatment of rental properties?   Across the whole country, and across time, any distortion arises largely from the failure to inflation-index the tax system.  Even in a well-functioning land market, the median property is likely to maintain its real value over time (ie rising at around CPI inflation).  In principle, that gain shouldn’t be taxed –  but it is certainly unjust, and inefficient, to tax the equivalent component of the interest return on a term deposit.     Interest is deductible on rental property mortgages, but (because of inflation) too much is deductible –  ideally only the real interest rate component should be.  On the other hand, in one of the previous government’s ad hoc policy changes, depreciation is not deductible any longer, even though buildings (though not the land) do depreciate.

But, here’s the thing.  In a tolerably well-functioning market, tax changes that benefit one sort of asset over others get capitalised into the price of assets pretty quickly.  We saw that last year, for example, in the US stock market as corporate tax cuts loomed.

And the broad outline of the current tax treatment of rental properties isn’t exactly new.  We’ve never had a full capital gains tax.  We’ve never inflation-adjusted the amount of interest expense that can be deducted.  And if anything the policy changes in the last couple of decades have probaby reduced the extent to which rental properties might have been tax-favoured:

  • we’ve markedly reduced New Zealand’s average inflation rate,
  • we tightened depreciation rules and then eliminated depreciation deductions altogether,
  • the PIE regime – introduced a decade or so ago –  had the effect of favouring institutional investments over individual investor held assets (as many rental properties are),
  • the two year “brightline test” was introduced, a version of a capital gains tax (with no ability to offset losses),
  • and that test is now being extend to five years.

If anything, tax policy changes have reduced the relative attractiveness of investment properties (and one could add the new discriminatory LVR controls as well, for debt-financed holders).  All else equal, the price potential investors will have been willing to pay will have been reduced, relative to other bidders.

And yet, according to Bernard Hickey

It largely explains why we are such poor savers and have run current account deficits that built up our net foreign debt to over 55 percent of GDP. That constant drive to suck in funds from overseas to pump them into property values has helped make our currency structurally higher than it needed to be.

I don’t buy it (even if there are bits of the argument that might sound a bit similar to reasoning I use).

A capital gains tax is the thing aspired to in many circles, including the Labour Party.   Bernard appears to support that push, noting in his article that we have (economically) fallen behind

other countries such as Australia, Britain and the United States (which all have capital gains taxes).

There might be a “fairness” argument for a capital gains tax, but there isn’t much of an efficiency one (changes in real asset prices will mostly reflect “news” –  stuff that isn’t readily (if at all) forecastable).   And there isn’t any obvious sign that the housing markets of Australia and Britain –  or the coasts of the US –  are working any better than New Zealand’s, despite the presence of a capital gains tax in each of those countries.   If the housing market outcomes are very similar, despite differences in tax policies, and yet the housing channel is how this huge adverse effect on productivity etc is supposed to have arisen, it is almost logically impossible for our tax treatment of houses to explain to any material extent the differences in longer-term economic performance.

And, as a reminder, borrowing to buy a house –  even at ridiculous levels of prices –  does not add to the net indebtedness of the country (the NIIP figures).  Each buyer (and borrower) is matched by a seller.  The buyer might take on a new large mortgage, but the seller has to do something with the proceeds.  They might pay down a mortgage, or they might have the proceeds put in a term deposit.    House price inflation –  and the things that give rise to it –  only result in a larger negative NIIP position if there is an associated increase in domestic spending.  The classic argument –  which the Reserve Bank used to make much of –  was about “wealth effects”: people feel wealthier as a result of higher house prices and spend more.

But here is a chart I’ve shown previously

net savings to nni jan 18

National savings rates have been flat (and quite low by international standards) for decades.  They’ve shown no consistent sign of decreasing as house/land prices rose and –  for what its worth –  have been a bit higher in the last few years, as house prices were moving towards record levels.

What I found really surprising about the Hickey article was the absence of any mention of land use regulation.  If policymakers didn’t make land artificially scarce, it would be considerably cheaper (even if there are still some tax effects at the margin).   And while there was a great deal of focus on tax policy, there was also nothing about immigration policy, which collides directly with the artificially scarce supply of land.

I’ve also shown this chart before

res I % of GDP

These are averages for each OECD country (one country per dot).  New Zealand is the red-dot –  very close to the line.  In other words, over that 20 year period we built (or renovated/extended) about as much housing as a typical OECD country given our population growth.    But, as I noted in the earlier post on this chart

The slope has the direction you’d expect – faster population growth has meant a larger share of current GDP devoted to housebuilding – and New Zealand’s experience, given our population growth, is about average. But note how relatively flat the slope is. On average, a country with zero population growth devoted about 4.2 per cent of GDP to housebuilding over this period, and one averaging 1.5 per cent population growth per annum would have devoted about 6 per cent GDP to housebuilding. But building a typical house costs a lot more than a year’s average GDP (for the 2.7 people in an average dwelling). In well-functioning house and urban land markets you’d expect a more steeply upward-sloping line – and less upward pressure on house/land prices.

And, since Hickey is –  rightly – focused on weak average rates of business investment here is another chart from the same earlier post.

Bus I % of GDP

Again, New Zealand is the red dot, close to the line.   Over the last 20 years, rapid population growth –  such as New Zealand has had –  has been associated with lower business investment as a share of GDP.  You’d hope, at bare minimum, for the opposite relationship, just to keep business capital per worker up with the increase in the number of workers.

This issue, on my telling, isn’t the price of houses –  dreadful as that is –  but the pressure the rapid policy-fuelled growth of the population has put on available real resources (not including bank credit).  Resources used building or renovating houses can’t be used for other stuff.

And one last chart on this theme.

productive cap stock

The blue line shows the annual per capita growth rate in the real capital stock, excluding residential dwellings (it is annual data, so the last observation is for the year to March 2017), but as my post the other day illustrated even in the most recent national accounts data, business investment has been quite weak.   I’ve added the orange line to account for land and other natural resources that aren’t included in the official SNZ capital stock numbers.  We aren’t getting any more natural resources –  land, sea, oil and gas or whatever –  (although of course sometimes things are discovered that we didn’t know had been there).  The orange line is just a proxy for real natural resources per capita –  as the population grows there is less per capita every year, even if everything is renewable, as many of New Zealand’s natural resources are (and thus the line is simply the inverted population growth rate).

In New Zealand’s case at least, rapid population growth (largely policy driven over time) seems to have been –  and still to be – undermining business investment and growth in (per capita) productive capacity.   Land use regulation largely explains house and urban land price trends.  And it seems unlikely that any differential features of New Zealand’s tax system explain much about either outcome.

The other new article that caught my eye this morning was one by Otago University (and Productivity Commission) economist, Andrew Coleman.    He highlights, as he has in previous working papers, how unusual New Zealand’s tax treatment of retirement savings is, by OECD country standards.  Contributions to pension funds are paid from after-tax income, earnings of the funds are taxed, and then withdrawals are tax-free.   In many other countries, such assets are more often accumulated from pre-tax income, fund earnings are largely exempt from tax, and tax is levied at the point of withdrawal.   The difference is huge, and bears very heavily on holding savings in a pension fund.

As Coleman notes, our system was once much more mainstream, until the reforms in the late 80s (the change at the time was motivated partly by a flawed broad-base low rate argument, and partly –  as some involved will now acknowledge –  by the attractions of an upfront revenue grab.

The case for our current practice is weak.  There is a good economics argument for taxing primarily at the point of spending, and not for –  in effect –  double-taxing saved income (at point of earning, and again the interest earned by deferring spending).  And I would favour a change to our tax treatment of savings (I’m less convinced of the case for singling out pension fund vehicles). I hope the TWG will pick up the issue.

That said, I’m not really persuaded that the change in the tax treatment of savings 30 years ago is a significant part of the overall house price story.  The effect works in the right direction –  and thus sensible first-best tax policy changes might have not-undesirable effects on house prices.  But the bulk of the growth in real house (and land) prices –  here and in other similar countries –  still looks to be due to increasingly binding land use restrictions (exacerbated in many places by rapid population growth) rather than by the idiosyncracies of the tax system.

Eaqub on NZ policymaking

Shamubeel Eaqub’s column in yesterday’s Sunday Star-Times got me thinking.

The column is headed Policy flip-flopping on the road to progress although Eaqub seems to lament two quite different things.  The first is what he suggests is a tendency for policy to reverse course depending on which party is in office.

On tax, we have seen little leadership. The Helen Clark-led Labour government raised income taxes for high income earners, because they wanted a progressive tax system.  The John Key-led government then lowered those taxes, as it took its turn at the policy-making helm.

This kind of turn-based policy making which favours ideology is bad. It creates instability and loses sight of the long-term issues governments should be dealing with.  Instead we need a long-term and deliberate approach which can overcome this kind of policy yo-yo.

And the second is something about failures of New Zealand policymaking more generally

Bad policies often hang around like weeds, because we don’t have a good system to review past policies and undo them if necessary.

The demands for action and leadership are justified. But we should not be so hasty to deride collaborative and transparent approaches to policy development.

They are a good counter to the current way that has allowed big social and economic issues to accumulate over decades.

I’m not convinced on the first score.  For decades now, the similarities between our two main parties have been much more apparent than the differences.  Even in the brief periods of radicalism, Labour briefly wrong-footed the National Party in the mid 1980s, then National had its own brief spurt of reforms in much the same general spirit, and then before long both parties had settled back to doing not very much at all.  In many ways, the similarities aren’t so surprising –  there is plenty of political science and economics literature to predict that sort of clustering to the centre.

There are exceptions of course –  such as the maximum marginal tax rate example Eaqub describes.   Another example might have been the 90 day trial periods promised (and implemented) by National in 2008, and being partially unwound now.   And the exceptions aren’t necessarily a bad thing.  We do, after all, live in a democracy, where parties compete for your vote.  One likes to think that at least some of that competition might be based around different visions, and differences of the best practical ways to achieve even agreeed outcomes, not just on (say) who has the cutest kids or makes the best pizza.  Reasonable people will, at times, take a quite different view on (a) priorities, and (b) mechanisms (not just what “works” but what is “socially acceptable”).   The hankering for “a long-term and deliberate approach which can overcome this kind of policy yo-yo” has disconcerting similarities to the talk of the alleged superiority of the approach adopted in the People’s Republic of China: one party, and now one leader, indefinitely supposedly facilitates good long-term reform.  None of that pesky competition of ideas, interests, and individuals.  Shame about the outcomes there.

So which party is in office is supposed to make a difference –  and not just to the faces on the covers of the women’s magazines.

But I’m much more sympathetic to Eaqub in his concern about longer-term policymaking and associated advisory capability.   And that probably does spillover into Eaqub’s concerns about some of those short-term initiatives parties promise to win elections

Too many policies are populist, turn-based or just ill-thought out

Eaqub laments the state of the public service.

The civil service has a role here, as the generators and repositories of policy ideas, rather than just the delivery mechanism of ministers’ ideas that it has become.

Beaten into submission over decades, our civil service is more likely to say “more research required” on a problem, like an academic, rather than offer a well-formed recommendation.

In some respects it is hard to disagree.   Observing the quality of the analysis and advice coming out of The Treasury and MBIE instills no confidence whatever.  But while ministers have not often not welcomed, and at times actively discouraged, free and frank advice, the problem isn’t only with politicians.  The Treasury’s continued failure to have a compelling narrative of why our economic performance continues to lag behind isn’t really Bill English’s fault –  it is the failure of the institution itself (more interested, apparently, in well-being studies) and perhaps of those –  the State Services Commission –  that appoints heads of government departments.  Sir Robert Muldoon –  no great fan of The Treasury –  didn’t prevent The Treasury being well-positioned in 1984 with ideas, analysis and energy that helped facilitate the reforms of the following decade.  But that was probably an historical exception, and perhaps it is unrealistic –  even in a small country –  to really expect the public service to lead in ideas-generation around desirable reforms.  Apart from anything else, the incentives are all wrong, and the inevitable constraints militate against it.

Perhaps we have bigger weaknesses than our public service?    Think-tanks are few –  and our most consistently fertile one (the New Zealand Initiative, and is predecessor the Business Roundtable) tends to be located towards a libertarian end of the spectrum where very few likely voters are.  And in many areas, the contribution to policy-related analysis and debate from university academics is pretty thin, or often almost non-existent.  There are understandable reasons –  the PBRF ranking/funding model prioritises refereed journal articles and academic books, and recruitment policy (no doubt for good short-term economic reasons) often prioritises cycling through young foreign academics with little knowledge of, or interest in, the specifics of New Zealand.   Whatever the reasons –  and some of them may just be the limits of a small country – the policy-related inputs are often pretty thin.

But I wonder if the bigger issue still isn’t the lack of demand for anything different.  After the ructions of the 80s and early 90s there seemed to be both a shared elite consensus that reforms had been done pretty well, and it was only a matter of time until we saw the fruit.  And when the fruit (mostly) didn’t show up to the extent hoped for, there was a shared reluctance at a political level to risk more change –  perhaps particularly on the left (where the Labour Party had split).   For many people, life in New Zealand isn’t too bad at all, so why risk rocking the boat –  memories (and folk memories now) of the 80s and 90s.

And the “policy elite” (whether or a broadly-left or broadly-right persuasion) still mostly tend to hold some views that probably haven’t served New Zealand that well.  For example:

  • the broad-based low rate (BBLR) tax system, which keeps getting praised (including abroad) but typically isn’t imitated.   We tax returns to savings materially more heavily than most countries do, and that is increasingly true of business investment too,
  • the deep-seated belief that high levels of immigration are a “good thing” –  generally, and for New Zealand (even as the proponents are unable to produce evidence of those benefits for New Zealand).  The belief might be rooted in history (settler societies and all that), general economics literature, and the dread fear of being accused –  eg by the NZ Initiative –  of “racism” or “xenophobia, but whatever the reason, it no longer serves us well,
  • the endless deference to the People’s Republic of China, and the narrative that has somehow been allowed to grow up that somehow our fragile prosperity depends on keeping on side with the PRC,
  • the indifference to the fact that New Zealand has had consistently the highest real interest rates in the advanced world (and amomg the slower rates of productivity growth) –  the rhetoric for a long time (again a legacy of past decades) was that such differences can’t persist, unless they are risk-based,
  • a shared belief in the importance of technology and the tech sector, and more of a desire to belief than a willingness to ask hard questions about the likelihood of such industries developing, and remaining, here,
  • the implicit belief that our physical location doesn’t matter much (occasional talk about “costs of distance” notwithstanding) and thus an implicit view that analysis fit for small northern European countries is just fine for a really remote South Pacific one,
  • a largely shared indifference to the persistence of a very high real exchange rate.  Some of this indifference no doubt relates to the memories of controlled exchange rates past, or to journal articles characterising exchange rates as random walks, but again whatever the reason, it holds people back from seriously engaging with this symptom of our problems.

Of course, there are other issues on which the “policy-elites” are on the side of the angels –  there is probably a pretty strong consensus on raising the NZS age and even age-indexing it in future –  but there are high political barriers.

And other issues like house prices – perhaps even family breakdown –  where New Zealand’s policy failures aren’t much different from those in many other parts of the Anglo world.

Probably it is much easier to do reform, and even craft some sort of elite support for it, when the issues look like ones that involve converging towards what everyone else is doing.   That was, more or less, the story we told in the 80s and early 90s.  Even when the details of things done here were sometimes world-leading, the overall narrative was one in which we had failed to open up and reform in a way that other countries had, or were doing.  We just need to catch-up, and in the process could do some innovative stuff.

But what of now?  No country anywhere is doing much to do structurally with house prices –  and for most people in most of the rest of the world, those successful parts of the US without the problem seem to be treated as little more than a curiousity, of which most are barely aware.  No one is fixing the “family breakdown” issues either, and so we drift like the rest.

And addressing our economic underperformance looks as though it might require stepping away from some of the OECD rhetoric.   That can be hard to do (perhaps especially for officials), absent some compelling figure with an alternative narrative and the political skills to take people with him/her.

To get back to Eaqub’s article, he began by noting that

When a new government forms, there is usually a flurry of studies, task forces, working groups and advisory panels.

That has been right, at least with recent governments.  But perhaps what is most notable about many of those groups is the typically limited resources and limited time they are given.  He cited the Jobs Summit –  done over a couple of months, culminating in a one-day jamboree –  or the 2025 Taskforce (so under-resourced the one foreign appointee couldn’t really believe it). But he could have mentioned the current Tax Working Group too, which is operating on pretty tight deadlines, with limited specialist expertise.   Some of these groups, even with limited time/resources, have produced some useful material.  But they are often more about political management than about actually getting to the bottom of some serious and knotty problem.

This post has been pretty discursive, probably more useful for clarifying my thinking than for anyone else.  I think my bottom line is something along these lines:

Political flip-flopping is the least of our problems.   And the public service –  while quite degraded in its policy capabilities –  is perhaps not a body one could ever hope for much from on a sustained basis.  Our university and think-tank sectors are weak, when it comes to policy analysis and associated innovation.  But perhaps the biggest obstacle to change –  whether around the issue this blog most often focuses on, productivity underperformance, or most others –  is the absence of any political (or, presumably, public) demand for different outcomes, buttressed by “policy-elites” who seem to share assumptions and presuppositions that might have looked fine 25 years ago, but which –  on my argument – don’t do so now.  Without alternatives –  that might go over well at the OECD, the IMF or the like – it is just easier to hold on to those presuppositions, and the comfortable life most enjoy.       It is a recipe for continued drift, which is of course what we saw under the last two governments and what we seem set for under the current one.   It isn’t obvious what, or who, might credibly lead us to something different.

House prices: Cleveland and Wellington

A few months I signed up to get the e-mail newsletters of US analyst Aaron Renn.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century.

There is an interesting mix of material on urban issues.   But this morning, one newsletter in particular caught my eye.  The title was a warning: “Sprawl in its Purest Form, Cleveland edition”.    The article began this way.

…..the image below contrast[s] the amount of urbanized land in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County in 1948 vs. 2002. The county population was identical in both years: 1.39 million.


And the piece goes on to lament how costly the spread of suburbia is, concluding that

As a rough heuristic, development of new suburban footprint should largely be limited to the growth rate in households to avoid saddling a region with excess fixed cost.

It might be music to the ears of some of our own planners, and the politicians who continue to enforce their policies.

Renn laments the fact that, at least in this case, when cities can spread and new houses can easily be built, while the population doesn’t change much, existing houses lose value

If you keep building new homes but you aren’t adding households, then older homes at the bottom of the scale will be abandoned. And all up the stack homes are devalued.

In the same way, when we had restrictions on importing cars in New Zealand for decades, secondhand cars didn’t depreciate much.  Most of us prefer access to newer cars.

I had a look at some Cleveland data.  And sure enough not only has that county’s population been largely unchanged, but greater Cleveland (MSA) with just over 2 million people also hasn’t had much change in population for 50 or 60 years (if anything falling slightly more recently).

I also had a look at house prices.   Demographia reports that Cleveland median house prices are 2.7 times median incomes in Cleveland, averaging US$146000 last year.  Average per capita GDP in the Cleveland metro area was around US$56000 in 2016.

On the other hand, a friend had mentioned the other day a house, perhaps 150 metres from where I’m typing, that had sold the other day for  $831000.    It is a small house (100 square metres) on a pretty tiny section (324 square metres) –  with a major construction project almost on the doorstep for the next 18 months or so – and as far as I can see nothing out of the ordinary.  That is the point –  it isn’t egregiously expensive for Wellington (let alone Auckland) in this day and age.    It is about what one might expect, given our laws and regulatory practices.     Average GDP per capita in Wellington in the year to March 2016 was around $NZ67900 –  a fair bit less than in Cleveland. records that the same Island Bay house sold in 1985 for $76500.   Apply the Reserve Bank’s inflation calculator and in today’s dollars that would be the equivalent of $207000.  The actual recent sale price –  the real increase in price –  was four times that.

How have Cleveland house prices done over time?  Here is a chart, back to 1985, from the FRED database.

cleveland prices

Nominal prices have increased quite a lot.  But in real terms, applying a US inflation calculator, Cleveland house prices have barely moved –  up a bit in the boom years, down in the recession, but over 33 years virtually no change at all.  Houses were highly affordable then, houses are highly affordable now.    And lest you assume Cleveland is some economic wasteland, the FRED database also suggests that the unemployment rate there has been averaging about 5 per cent in the last year or two, very similar to that in New Zealand.

I usually focus on cities with fast-growing populations in discussing US examples of low and affordable house prices – eg Atlanta or Nashville.   And I’ve never been to Cleveland, and have no particular idea how attractive or otherwise parts or all of it are (in Wellington, Porirua and Wainuiomata  –  for example –  also have their downsides).   But the ability of the citizenry to readily expand the physical footprint of the city seems like a success story, producing housing market outcomes that seem much more appealing –  particularly to younger people trying to enter the market –  and affordable than what we now seem to manage in our larger New Zealand cities.

We should steer well clear of “rough heuristics” or tighter rules that try to limit the expansion of the physical footprint of cities, or allow officials and politicians to determine which land can and can’t be built on, in what order.   A competitive market for urban land –  peripheral and central –  remains the best prospect for once again delivering what should be a basic expectation: affordable housing.

Sadly, I noted in ACT’s newsletter earlier in the week, a link to a parliamentary question from a few weeks ago in which the Minister for the Environment indicated that “Cabinet is yet to make any decision about whether to review the Resource Management Act”.  I’ve long been sceptical as to whether, even if some Labour parts of a left-wing government was willing to think about serious reform, such reform would be possible given the reliance on the Greens to pass government legislation.  Sadly, for now it increasingly looks as if those fears are being realised.

House –  and land prices –  need to fall.  This government, like its predecessor, seems at  scared of such an outcome, and unwilling to take steps that offer the prospect of sustained much lower prices.


What do we want with the Belt and Road?

Readers will recall that the New Zealand China Council was set up by the government a few years ago, and is largely funded by the government, to promote

deeper, stronger and more resilient links between New Zealand and China

The Council includes the heads of government departments/agencies (MFAT and NZTE), and includes plenty of people –  including retired politicians – with strong business links to the People’s Republic of China.    A significant part of what they do –  see their Annual Report – is a “communications and advocacy programme”, designed –  it seems – to help ensure that as far as possible New Zealanders see things their way, and don’t create trouble around either the character of the regime (and the party that controls it), or that regime’s activities at home, abroad, and in New Zealand itself.   There are, after all, deals to be done, political donations to be solicited, friends to be protected, and so on.

Stephen Jacobi is the executive director of the Council, and its public face.  In the last few weeks I’ve written about a speech Jacobi gave recently in which he attempted –  without much depth or rigour –  to bat away concerns about PRC activities and risks, and also about a rather economics-lite press release he had put out attempting (Trump-like) to make much of the current trade surplus with the People’s Republic of China.

This week Jacobi was out with another speech, this one on Investing in Belt and Road – A New Zealand Perspective.  “Belt and Road Initiative” (or BRI) is the most recent label (previously “One Belt, One Road”) on a somewhat ill-defined but expanding PRC programme, partly about improved infrastructure (initially in and around central Asia) and partly –  some argue mainly – about extending PRC geopolitical interests in ways that display scant regard for recipient countries’ debt burdens, social or environmental standards, transparency and so on. A few weeks ago, a Bloomberg story reported that Xi Jinping had just added the Arctic and Latin America to the areas (now almost the entire world) supposedly cover by the Belt and Road initiative

BRI graphic

Or as a recent New Yorker story put it

“Across Asia, there is wariness of China’s intentions. Under the Belt and Road Initiative it has loaned so much money to its neighbours that critics liken the debt to a form of imperialism.  When Sri Lanka couldn’t repay loans on a deepwater port, China took majority ownership of the project”

I’ve also linked previously to a recent report on the potential debt risks associated with the BRI programme.

Last week’s speech isn’t, of course, the first time Jacobi has been talking about the BRI.  In a Newsroom article last year he was quoted this way

Jacobi says “the real play” in our corner of the world is less about infrastructure and more about connecting up with China through including the flow of goods, services and people.

“I’ve even heard reference to the Digital Silk Road, the vision is expanding … there’s a bit of talk in China about Belt and Road being a new way to manage globalisation instead of the old ways, which have been done off the back of trade liberalisation in particular.”

But it wasn’t very clear, at all, what it meant for New Zealand

Jacobi says New Zealand shouldn’t let too much time go by before it develops more concrete ideas for what Belt and Road could achieve in New Zealand.

“We’ve really got to move from a very conceptual phase to talking about more definite projects: I can see scope for some projects that exist at the national level between New Zealand and China on bigger picture economic cooperation-type matters, and I can see scope for more discrete projects with individual provinces.”

But what did Mr Jacobi have to say this week?

He mightn’t be sure quite what the substance of the Initiative is, but Jacobi seems pretty sure it is a good thing.

Meanwhile China under its newly-empowered President is proceeding to implement the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a new model for globalisation, precisely at the time when people all around the world are calling for new ways to make globalisation work better.

What China –  with far-reaching restrictions still in place on foreign access to its market, especially around services –  means by “globalisation” isn’t what most people think of.

And so he tells us that

It is the assessment of the NZ China Council that New Zealand cannot afford to stand aside from developing a contribution to Belt and Road.

If we choose not to engage, others most certainly will and we will find our preferential position in the Chinese market further eroded.

There is the odd caveat

At the same time, we need to proceed carefully and in a way which matches our interests, our values and, especially, our comparative advantage.

although I don’t think I noticed any substantive discussion of our values or what they might mean in this context.

The context for any New Zealand involvement is a Memorandum of Arrangement signed by the two governments a year ago.

As Jacobi puts it

The MoA is non-binding and largely aspirational –  it set a timetable of 18 months for the development of this co-operation – we understand the official wheels are now in motion to put some greater flesh on the bones of how we might co-operate in the future.

And the China Council is working up its own ideas.

We suspect the greater benefit for NZ is likely to be in the “soft infrastructure” rather than the “hard infrastructure” – the way goods, services, capital and people move along the belt and road rather than building the road itself.

New Zealand has wide policy expertise and commercial services to offer in this area which matches a number of the policy areas China has highlighted for Belt and Road including policy co-ordination, investment and trade facilitation, and cultural and social exchange.

And they’ve had a consultant’s report done –  to be released in May –  with proposals.

Count me a little sceptical.  When Statistics New Zealand released the country breakdown of goods and services exports a few weeks ago, I had a look at the services exports of New Zealand firms to the PRC.  Under services exports –  themselves only 20 per cent of the total –  were tourism, export education, and travel/transportation.  Fifth on the list of “major services exports” was “other business services”.  Last year, that totalled $32 million – a fraction of 1 per cent of total exports to China.  It isn’t surprising, given that tight restrictions China has on most services sector trade, but it does leave you wondering what Mr Jacobi has in mind from his champion of globalisation.

I hadn’t previously got round to reading the Memorandum of Arrangement.  On doing so, it was hard to disagree with Mr Jacobi’s “aspirational” characterisation.  But equally, one had to wonder whether these were aspirations we should share (with Simon Bridges, who signed the agreement for the previous government).

It was, for example, a little hard to take at face value this bit of the preamble


and a bit further on the preamble started to get positively troubling, the Participants


I’m quite sure I – and most New Zealanders –  have  little interest in pushing forward “coordinated economic…and cultural development” with a state that can’t deliver anything like first world living standards for its own people (while Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea etc do) and whose idea of cultural development appears to involve the deliberate suppression of culture in Xinjiang, the persecution of religion (Christian, Muslim, Falun Gong or whatever), the denial of freedom of expression (let alone the vote) and which has only recently backed away from compelling abortions.  And that is just their activities inside China.    “Fusion among civilisations” doesn’t sound overly attractive either –  most of us cherish our own, and value and respect the good in others, without wanting any sort of fusion,and loss of distinctiveness.  But perhaps Simon Bridges saw things differently?

The next section is “Cooperation Objectives”.  There is lots of blather, including this


Hard not to think that “regional peace and development” might be better secured if the PRC forebore from creating new articial islands, seizing reefs etc in the South China Sea, or patrolling menacingly around the Senkaku Islands, engaging in military standoffs with India, or even making threatening noises about Taiwan.  There seem to be two main threats to regional peace, and the other is North Korea.  But you’d never hear anything of that sort from a New Zealand government.

The next section is “Cooperation Principles” under which the governments agree to


In other words, if New Zealand keeps quiet and never ever upsets Beijing, whether about their domestic policies (economic, human rights, democracy), their foreign policies (expansionist and aggressive) or their influence activities in other countries, including our own, everything will be just fine, and the PRC will keep dealing with us.  And on the other hand…….?

There are then  five “Cooperation Areas”.   Apparently, we are going to actively conduct “mutually beneficial cooperation in….public financial management” (hint: that “wall of debt” is a sign things haven’t been done well so far).  But the one that really caught my eye was under the heading “policy cooperation”, where Simon Bridges committed us to


It isn’t obvious New Zealand now has any “major development strategies” (see sustained lack of productivity growth) or that the PRC ones offer much to anyone –  well, individual business deals aside –  when compared with, say, those of Taiwan, Singapore, or Korea.     And what is this bit about strengthening “communication and cooperation on each other’s major macro policies”?     Why?  To what end?     And who thinks it is desirable for New Zealand to “connect and integrate” our (largely non-existent) “major development strategies”, and our “plans and policies” with those of the PRC?  A country that, as even Mr Jacobi recognised in his earlier speech, has fundamentally different values.

And the agreement concludes

bri 6

One has to wonder how it is in the interests of the people of New Zealand (as a whole –  as distinct perhaps from some individual businesses looking for a good deal), or consonant with their values, to support such an initiative, or a regime such as that of the PRC. Apart from anything else, it all seems curiously one-sided: the agreement isn’t to support New Zealanders, but rather to advance a geopolitical projection strategy of a major power, with very different values than our own.   Can anyone imagine us having signed such an agreement with the Soviet Union in the 1970s?

We can only wait and see the details of what the China Council will propose in their paper in May.   And, even more interestingly, what the government comes up with –  being bound to formulate a detailed work plan by September.  Winston Peters may regret the previous government signing up, but he is now stuck with the agreeement for four more years.  One hopes the government will find a way to some minimalist, not very costly, arrangements, but given how keen governments of both major parties have been to cosy up to Beijing –  party presidents praising Xi Jinping –  it is difficult to be optimistic.  On the other hand, it is difficult to see quite what any New Zealand involvement might amount to, and perhaps Beijing has already had the real win –  getting a Western country, a Five Eyes member, to sign up to such a questionable deal with such an obnoxious regime.

But to get back to Mr Jacobi’s speech, nearing the end he observes

There is currently a debate in New Zealand about the extent of Chinese influence in our economy.

I am on record as being concerned about some of the “anti-China” narrative in that debate, especially in the unfortunate targeting of prominent individuals in the Chinese community, but there is nothing wrong with a debate focused on how to build a resilient relationship with China given the difference political values between our two countries.

While I welcome his final half-sentence, it is a little hard to take seriously when he never – at least in public –  engages seriously with the concerns that people like Anne-Marie Brady have been raising.  As I noted about his earlier speech, among other things he will simply never

  • address why it is appropriate to have as member of Parliament in New Zealand a former Chinese intelligence official, former (at least on paper) member of the Communist Party, someone who now openly acknowledges misrepresenting his past on forms to gain entry to New Zealand (apparently because that is what the PRC regime told people to do),
  • address the PRC control of the local Chinese language media, and associated (and apparently heightened) restriction on content,

Instead he falls back on plaintive laments about the “unfortunate targeting of prominent individuals in the Chinese community”.   These same people –  since presumably he has in mind Jian Yang and Raymond Huo –  sit on his own advisory board.  And both are not members of the public, but elected members of Parliament: not in either case elected by a local constituency (and certainly not by “the Chinese community”), but by all New Zealand voters for their respective parties.     And yet both of them –  but particularly Jian Yang –  simply refuse to answer questions or appear in the English language media to explain and defend (in Yang’s case) the background, and their ongoing ties to the PRC and apparent reluctance to ever say a critical word about that heinous regime.

It must now be six months –  since the Newsroom stories first broke –  since Jian Yang has appeared.   At the moment, it looks much less like “unfortunate targeting”, than quite specific and detailed targeting, with unfortunate defence and distraction being played by key figures in the New Zealand establishment, including Mr Jacobi.  Perhaps people might be more persuaded by Jacobi’s case –  that working closely with, and constantly deferring to, the PRC was in the best long-term interests of New Zealanders, if he called for his board members to front up, rather than giving them cover to simply shut up.

In concluding the post a few weeks ago about Mr Jacobi’s earlier speech, I had a speculative paragraph on some uncomfortable parallels between the PRC now, and Germany in the 1930s.  If the parallel isn’t exact –  and we must hope not, given how the earlier episode ended –  it still seems closer than any other historical case I can think of, including the same desperate desire to appease, to understand, to get alongside (key figures in the British Cabinet were still hoping to do economic deals with Berlin well into 1939), and the same reluctance to confront evil or take a stand (even at some cost to some businesses).  In a week when the PRC “Parliament” passed the amendment to remove the term limit on the office of President with 2958 votes in favour and two against, I decided to check out the results of the referendum Hitler staged in August 1934 after President Hindenburg died, to finally concentrate all power in his own hands.  This was 18 months into the Nazi era.  Despite widespread intimidation, almost 10 per cent of voters (on a high turnout) felt free to dissent

For 38,394,848 88.1
Against 4,300,370 9.9
Invalid/blank votes 873,668 2.0
Total 43,568,886 100

There is something to be said for our governments openly and honestly confronting the nature of the Beijing regime.   We can’t change them, and it isn’t our place to, but we can choose with whom we associate, we can choose how often we just keep quiet, and how much of our own values (and the interests of many of our own Chinese citizens) we compromise in the quest for a few deals for a few businesses (and universities) – and a steady flow of political party donations.   And we can, and do, as I’ve pointed out before, make our own prosperity.  If individuals firms want to deal with the PRC, on its terms, then good luck to them I suppose, but we then need to wary of those same firms and institutions, and to ask whose interests they are now, implicitly or explicitly, championing.

There is a weird line in Matthew Hooton’s column in today’s Herald in which he asserts that no one should be critical of China because “China is just doing what emerging Great Powers always do”.  That may be a semi-accurate description.  It didn’t stop us calling out, and resisting, the expansionist tendencies of Germany, Japan, or the Soviet Union.  It shouldn’t hold us back in recognising the threat the latest party-State, the People’s Republic of China, poses both abroad and here.



Our rather moribund economy

The quarterly national accounts data were out yesterday.  They made pretty underwhelming reading.

There was the (rather modest) growth in per capita GDP

pc GDP mar 18

This expansion –  dating from around 2010 –  has been quite a lot weaker than the previous two growth phases.  In the chart you can see that almost every peak for the last 25 years has been lower than the one before.   And for the last year – full year 2017 over full year 2016 – we managed only 0.8 per cent growth in real GDP per capita.   Growth has been slower than that only in the midst of the last two recessions.

At least real per capita GDP grew, you might say.  But hours worked per capita (whether measured by the HLFS or the QES) grew by a touch over 0.8 per cent over that same period.  In fact, there was no growth in labour productivity at all.

Here is my standard labour productivity chart, averaging the different possible combinations of QES and HLFS hours data and production and expenditure GDP data.

productivity mar 18

There has been no productivity growth at all in the last year, and in the last five years ( the grey line relative to the orange line) average annual labour productivity growth has been only around 0.3 per cent per annum.   And this in an economy that the previous government liked to boast –  and the new government seemed happy to concede –  was doing pretty well.  Productivity growth is the only sustained basis for long-term improvement in material living standards.   We have very little of it –  even as we start so far behind most other advanced countries.

Perhaps our firms have been managing more success in taking in world markets?

There was bounce in the terms of trade –  dairy prices were improving –  so nominal exports as a share of nominal GDP did improve.

x share of gdp

Unfortunately, it looks like another of those series in which each peak is a bit lower than the one before it.    And services exports –  the wave that was much talked of a year or two back –  look to be dropping away again.  Exports of services –  often talked of as the way of the future –  first got to the current level (share of GDP) in 1998.

I don’t often show charts of export volumes.  As a share of GDP such charts aren’t very meaningful.  But one can compare growth rates, in this case for the last decade, since just prior to the 2008/09 recession.

x and gdp real

Over the decade as a whole, export volume growth has barely kept pace with the unimpressive growth in real GDP, and even the services surge in 2014/15 only ‘made up’ for the severe underperformance of that sector in the previous few years.   Recall that, for a country with a small population, New Zealand’s export share of GDP is very low to start with, and over this decade there has been no progress in closing that gap (something probably an integral mark of any sucessful policy programme to close the overall productivity gaps).  The result isn’t very surprising given how out of line with relative productivity our real exchange rate has become, but it can be (soberingly) useful to see the hypothesis confirmed in the data.

And one last chart.  Here is the proxy for business investment spending as a share of GDP (total investment less government and residential investment).

business investment to dec 17

Yet another chart in which each peak seems lower than the one before it –  and this in a country where, with very rapid population growth at present, one might have hoped to see a temporarily larger than usual share of current GDP going to business investment, to maintain the capital stock per worker.   But no.    If anything –  and there is noise in the series so I wouldn’t make anything much of it – things may have been falling off again in the last few quarters.

These weren’t outcomes the previous government showed any sign of caring about.   In Opposition, Grant Robertson would regularly release statements when the national accounts came out lamenting the relatively poor performance.  In office, there was no statement yesterday.  And despite the occasional ritual obeisance to the idea of lifting productivity performance, there is no sign that government –  or their Treasury advisers –  has any serious idea how such outcomes might be brought about, or any very serious commitment to trying.