Agricultural sector productivity growth

In the last few weeks, presumably simply by coincidence, I’ve had various comments and emails about productivity growth in the agricultural sector.    The most recent one finally prompted me to dig out the official data and check that my impressions were still supported by the data.  They were.    Agricultural sector productivity growth was very strong, but has been much more subdued for some time now.

There are two main measures of agricultural sector productivity: labour productivity (in effect, output per hour of labour input) and multi-factor productivity (in effect, the residual after what can be attributed to growth in labour and capital inputs has been deducted). In principle, MFP is superior.  In practice, estimates rely more heavily on the assumptions used in the calculation (although –  diverting briefly –  to the various readers who have sent me a recent piece by GMO on TFP/MFP, I reckon there is less to that critique than the authors claim).

Agriculture is one of the sectors for which we have consistent productivity data back to year ending March 1978.  By New Zealand standards, that is a long run of data.  Note that there is quite a bit of natural volatility from year to year because of fluctuations in the climate (droughts and all that).

Here are the charts showing growth in labour productivity and in multi-factor productivity (both expressed in log terms, so that the slope of the line indicates the growth rate).

agric LP

Really rapid growth in the first 20 years or so (up 150 per cent in 20 years), but much slower growth since then.  It isn’t disastrous growth by any means –  averaging just under 1.5 per cent per annum from 2005 to now –  but nothing startling either.

And MFP.

agric MFP

Once again, really strong productivity growth for the first 20 years, and much less since then (none at all in the last decade).  If one had confidence in the data, that might be more concerning.

Perhaps –  and it is an obvious question to ask – you are wondering if the slowdown in agricultural productivity growth is just part of the general slowdown in labour productivity growth in New Zealand (seen mostly starkly in the overall economy figures, where there has been very little growth at all in the last five years or so).

So here are the same two charts –  labour productivity and MFP –  but this time showing agriculture relative to the overall “former measured sector” (the series SNZ publishes that also goes back to 1978, covering the 70 per cent or so of the economy where productivity is relatively less hard to measure).  All series are indexed to a common base in 1978 (so none of this is about productivity levels, it is all about cumulative growth rates).

Labour productivity first.

agric LP and FMS

and MFP

mfp agr

There is clearly something in the story.   Growth in the “former measured sector” productivity itself has slowed –  labour productivity growth averaged 2.4 per cent from 1978 to 1998 and 1.6 per cent for the 20 years since 1998.  But whereas agricultural sector productivity growth was (far) outstripping that in the rest of the “former measured sector” in the earlier years –  the upward-sloping bits of the last two charts –  in the last 20 years (and even more so in the last 10) productivity growth in the agricultural sector has been a little slower than in the rest of the “former measured sector”.

I don’t have a policy point to make here.  Sector-level productivity isn’t my area.  Relative optimists might look at the data and suggest liberalisation played a big part in the earlier productivity surge, and that liberalisation wasn’t ever going to be repeated.  Perhaps, but bear in mind that our agricultural sector was always the part of the economy most heavily exposed to international markets  (by contrast, a sector like “Transport, postal, and warehousing” –  with similar total labour productivity growth over 40 years –  was almost certainly much more sheltered).   Pessimists might focus on the role of unpriced externalities (particularly around water pollution, but also methane emissions) and wonder how agricultural sector productivity might respond as regulation bears more heavily there (although it is possible we could see higher average productivity and lower total output).   Others might reasonably wonder about these producitivity measures for agriculture in particular: in most sectors labour and capital are the critical inputs, but land is a huge input in agriculture and it isn’t directly accounted for (something which matters –  much –  more in looking at levels estimates).

As for me, my only motivation was to update my impressions.  Sadly, the latest data confirmed them.

 

Why is the Deputy Prime Minister going to Istanbul?

The government seems determined to do its utmost to assist in the election campaign of the odious Turkish President Erdogan.  It surely cannot be their conscious intention, but how else to read what they are doing?

There are local elections in Turkey next weekend. The Financial Times reports that the ruling party is facing the possibility of losing control of the capital city, Ankara.  The economy –  which has done remarkably well in recent decades (as I’ve noted here, real GDP per hour worked is now almost equal to New Zealand) – is currently in a sharp downturn.

Erdogan appears to be trying to bolster his local appeal by wrapping around himself some sort of self-acquired mantle as a leader among Islamic states.

And thus, although no Turkish citizens were killed in last Friday’s dreadful attacks in Christchurch, suddenly the Turkish Vice-President and Foreign Minister are in New Zealand.  There are motorcades in Christchurch and even a meeting with the Governor-General.   What was the government doing agreeing to even this visit?  Didn’t their advisers tell them how this would most likely be used?  And, to add insult to injury, this is a Turkish government that –  like all Turkish governments – actively denies (and threatens states that say otherwise) the active involvement of Turkish authorities in the Armenian genocide, one of the most hideous events in an awful war.

And that was before we learned of Erdogan using clips from the shooting video in his election rally, amping up the rhetoric with talk of Gallipoli and how the landings in 1915 had been anti-Muslim in nature, and talking of sending people (New Zealanders and Australians) home in coffins.  Perhaps it played well to his base, but not only was it irresponsible and inflammatory, it wasn’t even remotely historically accurate.  Turkey –  or its predecessor the Ottoman Empire –  actively chose to enter the war on the German and Austro-Hungarian side.  Right up to the outbreak of war the British had been helped develop the Ottoman navy.  I’m not relitigating the rights and wrongs of the First World War, but it was their choice.  The German establishment at the time was firmly Protestant.   The New Zealand government history site tells us

Enver grew impatient. On 25 October 1914, without consulting any of his ministerial colleagues, he ordered Admiral Souchon to take the Ottoman fleet, including the German-crewed ships, into the Black Sea to attack the Russians. The fleet carried out surprise raids on Theodosia, Novorossisk, Odessa and Sevastopol, sinking a Russian minelayer, a gunboat and 14 civilian ships. On 2 November, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire. France and the British Empire, Russia’s wartime allies, followed suit on the 5th. Enver Pasha had succeeded in bringing the Ottoman Empire into the First World War on the side of the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Whether he would be as successful in achieving his principal war aim – pan-Turkic expansion into Central Asia at Russia′s expense – was another question.

Erdogan can play domestic politics all he likes.  That is his problem, and that of his people/country.   But we should hold our officeholders to account for their (in)actions and words.

We are told that our Foreign Minister has had a quiet word to the visiting Turkish politicians.  But we’ve heard nothing from our Prime Minister.  By contrast, Scott Morrison has openly demanded an apology from Erdogan.  I’m sure he won’t get one, but at least he has put his cards on the table, and stuck up for his country.

What is our government doing?  Well, a press release yesterday told us that the Foreign Minister (Deputy Prime Minister in this coalition government) is off to Turkey, of all places, accompanied by another government minister.

“Our current intention is then to travel onwards to Turkey, at the request of the Turkish Government, to attend a special ministerial meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation being held in Istanbul.

“This important event will allow New Zealand to join with our partners in standing against terrorism and speaking up for values such as understanding and religious tolerance.

So, late in his election campaign, having insulted New Zealanders –  past and present –  Erdogan summons a meeting and our government comes running.   How does he supppose the state-dominated media in Turkey is likely to present that?  As if New Zealand has anything to answer for to Turkey.

And that is before we get to even consider this meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.  This is such an odious organisation that just recently they issued a collective official statement endorsing the treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang by the People’s Republic of China.  I’ve been critical of our government for saying and doing nothing on that issue, but not once have I supposed that the Prime Minister and her Foreign Minister think it is all just fine (they leave that stance to Todd McClay). To his credit, Erdogan has actually been a rare leader to criticise the PRC over Xinjiang, but this is a meeting of the OIC itself Winston Peters is to attend.

And what messages does he envisage?  They will jointly speak out against terrorism –  no problem with that –  but they will also, we are told, speak up for “values such as…religious tolerance”.   Really?     It would be great if they both did it and meant it, but a significant proportion of the member countries of the OIC have apostasy laws on the books.

apostasy.png

And a significant proportion of those countries actually provide the death penalty as the punishment for leaving Islam.  I’ve listened to church leaders talk about the extreme courage of (rare) converts.  Tolerance in these countries means if you are born and raised Christian, Jewish or whatever you can stay that way, but no one is allowed to convert out of Islam.

It isn’t true of all countries.  Turkey is pretty good on the religious freedom score.  But  –  given the laws on their own statute books, freely chosen – any talk of religious toleration by the OIC is almost certain to be less than entirely honest.  And Winston Peters will be giving them cover by attending this meeting, just as he’ll probably be grist to Erdogan’s election campaign by turning up in Istanbul at all at a time like this.

Perhaps he will use the visit to make a strongly-worded call for an apology from Erdogan and for (too much of) the Islamic world to embrace genuine religious freedom –  the right to adopt or to leave a religion.  But I’m not holding my breath.

Looking at the regional GDP numbers

Under this government money from the Provincial Growth Fund has been being flung round like confetti (this was last week’s example), with very little sign of any rigorous evaluation.  It isn’t clear to me whether things are worse under this government than they were before (recall the 13 bridges Simon Bridges was promising in Northland as Minister of Transport, to try to win a by-election) or whether this lot are just “better”
at the branding.   “Regional development” –  with no disciplined sense of what actually shapes economic performance – has certainly been a cause dear to the heart of all recent governments (and their MBIE bureaucrats).

SNZ yesterday released the annual regional GDP numbers.   As ever, these  numbers aren’t perfect –  nominal not real, and prone to revisions for several years –  but they are lot better than nothing, which is what we had until almost 20 years ago.

The Provincial Growth Fund seems to have been particularly concentrating its confetti in Northland, Gisborne, and the West Coast.  The Northland and Gisborne regions are estimated to have the lowest average GDP per capita in New Zealand (at about 70 per cent of the national figure).  As it happens, the West Coast doesn’t do too badly, with average GDP per capita 84 per cent of the national average in the year to March 2018.  Manawatu-Wanganui and Hawke’s Bay round out the bottom five regions (with average GDP per capita less than that on the West Coast).

The regional GDP data have been available since the year to March 2000.  Over the period since then, three of those five regions have had faster growth in per capita GDP than the national average (and by very substantial margins in Northland and the West Coast).  All five have recorded faster growth than Auckland and Wellington.  And if one goes back to 2000, one of the poorest five regions then was the Bay of Plenty, but it has recorded such fast (per capita) growth since 2000 that it has overtaken not just Hawke’s Bay but also Tasman-Nelson.

The picture is a bit less positive if one takes just the last decade, but even over that period growth in per capita incomes is estimated to have been stronger in Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne than in the country as a whole.

As a matter of interest, I also had a look at the unemployment data.  The regional data from the HLFS arem’t reported for the same groupings as the regional GDP data, but here is one chart I constructed.

regional U rates

Even at its worst this decade, the gap between the two lines wasn’t as large as it was 20 years ago.  Last year, it was almost as low as it has ever been.  Involuntary unemployment is a blight on lives wherever it is found, but these particular regions don’t seem to have been doing too badly.

Meanwhile, any guesses as to which regions had the slowest growth in average GDP per capita over the entire period from 2000 to 2018?

Wellington was worst, followed by Auckland as second-worst.

akld wgtn shares

The two regions combined have recorded a material increase in their share of national population, and yet their share of total GDP is unchanged (actually down very marginally).

What about Auckland alone?  If the picture is less dramatic than for Wellington, Auckland matters much more, due to sheer size (and population growth, actual and projected) Here is the latest version of a chart I’ve shown in previous years.

akld gdp pc to 18

It certainly isn’t monotonic.  There are reasonably good phases (which look to coincide with building booms in Auckland) and really bad ones, but there is no sign of the longer-term trend reversing.   An even-greater share of the population is in Auckland, and average output per person in Auckland is growing more slowly than in most of the rest of the country.  In high-performing economies –  at least those relying on something other than really abundant mineral resources –  the picture is typically the other way round.  Big city GDP per capita is typically much higher than in the rest of the country, and in most cases that margin is widening.  But not in Auckland.

Any why is Auckland’s population growing so rapidly when its economic performance has been unimpressive (to say the least).  That’s down to immigration policy.  That isn’t really a debateable point: the data show that (net) New Zealanders have been moving away from Auckland.  This chart was taken from a Treasury working paper I wrote about last year.

tsy akld popn

Our large-scale non-citizen immigration policy –  with targets not exceeded in per capita terms in any other OECD country –  is a practical centrepiece of the economic strategy of successive New Zealand governments.   You don’t hear the phrase now, but it is only a few years ago that MBIE openly talked of the policy as a “critical economic enabler“.  With the best will in the world no doubt, “critical economic disabler” would be a fairer description of the role immigration has played for decades (probably going back all the way to the post World War Two period).  It isn’t the fault of the immigrants –  simply looking for the best for themselves and their families –  but of successive governments and their officials.  They are particularly culpable as the evidence has mounted that their strategy simply is not producing the desired economic results.

The story in Wellington is different of course, but probably no less telling.  Here, local government likes to talk up the idea of a city built on high tech industries.   Central government likes that talk, and also throws (lots of) money at the film industry.    The information in the regional GDP tables doesn’t give a full picture, but there is a line for the component of GDP labelled “Information, media and telecommunications and other services”.  Here is the share of that sector in Wellington’s GDP.

wgtn ICT

Even in Auckland, the share of that sector has been falling –  so there may be something structural around, say, the falling real price of telecommunications going on  –  but nothing like as steep as that fall in Wellington.

New Zealand does macro policy reasonably well –  fiscal policy and (for all my various criticisms at the margin) monetary policy – but our structural policies are set for failure, and in delivering continued underperformance, are doing just that.    The immigration policies pursued by successive governments simply take no account of either our experience (70 years of ongoing relative decline) or our most unpropitious location.   If –  as I noted yesterday –  this is a bad place for basing outward-oriented business (and revealed preference suggests that is so), it is a bad place for governments to engage in “population planning”, importing large numbers of people.  One of the fastest population growth rates in the OECD combined with one of the poorest economic performances should be telling anyone with ears to hear (not our politicians) something important.  The specific relative failure of Auckland just makes that message more stark.

 

 

Easy to do business, bad place for business

I noticed the other day a tweet from the chair of the Productivity Commission calling attention to the fact that New Zealand once again tops the World Bank’s ease of doing business index.  The top five this year were New Zealand, Singapore, Denmark, Hong Kong, and South Korea.

New Zealand has ranked at or near the top of this index for some time (in fact, ever since it was created about 15 years ago).  From their country note on New Zealand these charts show New Zealand’s data in more detail (the first showing our rank on individual components, and the second our absolute scores) .

ease of doigng business

No doubt there are people in MBIE who know all about why we score poorly on some of these sub-indices, and what could or should be done to improve (and even perhaps, on occasion, why what the World Bank is measuring isn’t necessarily what they think it is).

But New Zealand has consistently scored well on this measure.   That is noted regularly in analyses of our economic performance.  Generally, we want to have a good regulatory etc environment in which it isn’t difficult for someone with an idea, someone spotting an opportunity, to set up and run a business.   I haven’t dug more deeply into the index to understand why, but I was interested to see our one perfect score was on “getting credit” –  this being about business credit, not housing.

Scoring highly in this index is almost certainly better than scoring poorly.  Contrast the top five with the bottom five countries; Libya, Yemen, Venezuela, Eritrea, and Somalia.   But if there is some causation at work in the implied direction (improve your score on this index and your economy is likely to improve) there is probably also some (weaker) causation in the opposite direction: rich and well-governed countries are likely to score better on an index that often looks at sophisticated features of a regulatory system.

Whatever the aggregate story, there is no simplistic one-to-one mapping from a good score on this World Bank index and better economic performance.  New Zealand is the standout illustration of that point.

In this chart, I’ve shown labour productivity (real GDP per hour worked) levels and growth rates for the top 5 countries for the decade from 2007 to 2017, using the most recent version of the Conference Board’s database.  If the benefits of a high “ease of doing business” score show up anywhere in official data it should be here.

ease of doing bus productivity

South Korea wasn’t in the top five a decade ago (in fact, it was only ranked 21st).  Probably the various reforms they’ve done over the last decade, which have improved their score in the World Bank index, have contributed to productivity growth.  That is part of how they have been catching up and converging.

But what I found interesting about the chart is that –  for this small group of countries/territories – the productivity growth pattern has been about what you would expect.  The countries with the highest initial levels of labour productivity had slower growth rates than those with lower initial levels of productivity.  The exception, of course, is New Zealand.

Take a bigger sample and there will be other exceptions (the UK, for example, ranks number 9 and –  after a good couple of decades, but only middling levels of advanced country productivity –  has had a really poor productivity growth performance in the last decade.    But my focus is New Zealand.

We score quite well on all manner of such international surveys.  Take skills for example.  A year or two back, the OECD adult skills data suggested New Zealand workers  were among the most highly-skilled in the OECD.    And yesterday I noticed a report suggesting that New Zealand was in the top 3 countries in the world, behind Finland and Switzerland.

Again, it is presumably better to be near the top of such a list than at the bottom

The WEFFI report, by the Economist Intelligence Unit, looks at policy initiatives, teaching methodologies and the socio-economic environment of 50 countries. It found the five worst-ranked countries to be Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria, Iran and Pakistan.

But it doesn’t seem to bear any relationship to getting to the bottom of New Zealand’s specific economic underperformance –  not just over the last decade, but over most of the last 70 years.

One of the odder features of New Zealand public service life is the number of top-tier public servants who now seem to run Twitter accounts and disseminate material through those accounts.  I’m old-fashioned enough to think that senior public servants shouldn’t really be seen or heard except by Cabinet ministers (to whom they give their advice, and implement decisions taken by political masters).  More pointedly, public servants’ Twitter accounts are at grave risk of being, in effect, party political broadcasts for their masters since senior public servants can’t really be out openly disagreeing with the Minister so anything that is tweeted is not going to upset the Minister or his/her office, and yet it bears the imprimatur of a supposedly-neutral public servant.

On the other hand, these accounts can shine a little light on what top public servants are up to and what causes they are championing.

One of the tweeters is the (fortunately soon to have departed) Secretary to the Treasury, Gabs Makhlouf, who has spent the last eight years presiding over –  perhaps even inspiring –  the degradation in the capacity of what should be the government’s lead economic advisory agency.  In his most recent tweet a few days ago he linked to a piece by the (often stimulating) academic economist Dani Rodrik.    There is a lot to disagree with in Rodrik’s piece, but I just to quote his conclusion.

…economists are well positioned to develop institutional arrangements that go beyond what already exists, their habit of thinking at the margin and sticking close to the evidence at hand encourages an aversion to radical change. But, when presented with new challenges, economists must envision new solutions. Imagination is crucial. Not everything we try will succeed; but if we do not rediscover the value of FDR’s credo – “bold, persistent experimentation” – we will certainly fail.

One can only assume that Makhouf agrees.   But there is just no sign of The Treasury under his leadership having seriously re-thought the New Zealand productivity failure.   If there is any bold thinking (and here “thinking” would be a polite description) it is around avoiding confronting that failure at all, chasing off after the insubstantial living standards framework and the associated “wellbeing Budget”. Feel better, I suppose, even if we can’t do better.  It is perhaps great as a political distraction  –  politicians do that sort of thing –  but we should expect something much better from a premier economic agency than turning away from the most striking economic failure in our history, and playing distraction in the hope no one will notice.  In principle perhaps the two –  “wellbeing budgets” and some serious fresh thinking on productivity, specific to New Zealand –  could both be done, but (a) resources are limited and (b) nothing in any Makhouf speech has ever really suggested a desire, or an ability, to confront the specific productivity challenges here.   One can only wistfully hope –  with no reason for optimism, given who (SSC and Grant Robertson) does the selection –  that his successor will be different.

As for my own alternative story?  I don’t have any particular problem with the rankings people like the World Bank come up with –  from a regulatory perspective doing business in New Zealand probably is easier than in most places – but those indexes just don’t shed light on the salient issues for New Zealand.  Citing them, as anything more than a stepping off point  – “despite this high ranking…..” – is akin to looking for lost keys under the lamppost because that is where the light is, rather because there is reason to suppose it is where the keys are.   From a regulatory perspective, New Zealand probably isn’t a bad place to do business –  although there always many things that could be improved –  but from a more fundamental perspective New Zealand –  most remote significant inhabited land mass on the planet –  looks like a pretty awful place to do business from, in anything much other than utilising the limited natural resources.    Were it otherwise, we’d have seen more investment, more exports (and imports), more globally-oriented firms basing themselves here.

Against that backdrop, actively pursuing an ever-bigger population through a large-scale immigration policy that is championed across the bureaucracy –  including by Makhlouf’s Treasury –  is fundamentally damaging to the longer-term economic interests of New Zealanders as a whole. (And, as I’ve noted, many times before that is so whether the migrants  –  mostly decent and well-motivated people – come from Brisbane, Bangalore, Brahmanbaria, Buenos Aires or Birmingham.)  Unless and until our political leaders are willing to confront this – and at present all parties in Parliament are signed on to one of the largest (per capita) immigration programmes in the world, there is very little likelihood of those high rankings –  ease of business, teaching skills, or whatever –  translating into material living standards to match those in other countries at or near the top of these indices.

Australia faces many of the same issues New Zealand does in this regard, but the economic constraints are –  at least temporarily –  less binding because of the newly-developed abundant mineral resources they are able to bring to market.  It was interesting to read in The Australian this morning that the government there is planning to cut their permanent migration intake.   The reported number would still be high by international standards, but in per capita terms would be only about three-quarters of the target in place in New Zealand –  and that in a country with more opportunities and more wealth.   Of course, the current government is almost certain to lose this year’s election –  and some other aspects of the reported package are just daft (trying to compel immigrants and even students to the regions – so it may never happen.  But it suggests a more serious willingness to engage than has been evident from either main party in New Zealand.

Continuing to look under the lamp post, rather than look for actual diagnostic answers and policy solutions, is just a recipe for keeping on failing economically.

 

 

Modern monetary theory, old-school fiscal practice

On various occasions previously, I’ve used here survey results from the IGM Economic Experts panel, run out of the University of Chicago Booth School.   They survey academic economists in the US and Europe and the results often shed some interesting light on consensus, and difference, within the academic economics discipline.  As ever of course, much depends on how the questions are framed.

Their latest effort was not one of their best.  There were two questions.

MMT1

MMT2

Glancing through the individual responses, if there are differences among these academic economists they seem to be mainly ones of temperament (some people are just very relucant to ever use either 1 or 5 on a five point scale).

But so what?  No serious observer has ever really argued otherwise.

So-called Modern Monetary Theory has been around for some time, but has had a fresh wave of attention in recent weeks in the context of the so-called “Green New Deal” that is being propounded by various more or less radical figures of the left of American politics.  Primary season is coming.  The brightest new star on that firmament, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has associated herself with the MMT label.

One of the more substantial proponents of MMT thinking, Professor Bill Mitchell of the University of Newcastle, visited New Zealand a couple of years ago.  I wrote about his presentation and a subsequent roundtable discussion in a post here.    We had a bit of an email exchange after he stumbled on my post, and although we disagree on policy, I was encouraged that he thought my treatment had been “very fair and reasonable”.  I mention that only so that in the extracts that follow people realise that I’m not describing a straw man.   I don’t know how Professor Mitchell would have answered the IGM survey questions above, but what I heard that day in 2017 should logically have led him to join the consensus.  That’s a mark of how useless the survey questions were.

He seemed to regard his key insight as being that in an economy with a fiat currency, there is no technical limit to how much governments can spend.  They can simply print (or –  since he doesn’t like that word – create) the money, by spending funded from Reserve Bank credit.     But he isn’t as crazy as that might sound. He isn’t, for example, a Social Crediter.    First, he is obviously technically correct –  it is simply the flipside of the line you hear all the time from conventional economists, that a government with a fiat currency need never default on its domestic currency debt.     And he isn’t arguing for a world of no taxes and all money-creating spending.  In fact, with his political cards on the table, I’m pretty sure he’d be arguing for higher taxes than New Zealand or Australia currently have (but quite a lot more spending).  Taxes make space for the spending priorities (claims over real resources) of politicians.  And he isn ‘t even arguing for a much higher inflation rate –  although I doubt he ever have signed up for a 2 per cent inflation target in the first place.

In listening to him, and challenging him in the course of the roundtable discussion, it seemed that what his argument boiled down to was two things:

  • monetary policy isn’t a very effective tool, and fiscal policy should be favoured as a stabilisation policy lever,
  • that involuntary unemployment (or indeed underemployment) is a societal scandal, that can quite readily be fixed through some combination of the general (increased aggregate demand), and the specific (a government job guarantee programme).

Views about monetary policy come and go.   As he notes, in much academic thinking for much of the post-war period, a big role was seen for fiscal policy in cyclical stabilisation.  It was never anywhere near that dominant in practice –  check out the use of credit restrictions or (in New Zealand) playing around with exchange controls or import licenses –  but in the literature it was once very important, and then passed almost completely out of fashion.  For the last 30+ years, monetary policy has been seen as most appropriate, and effective, cyclical stabilisation tool.  And one could, and did, note that in the Great Depression it was monetary action –  devaluing or going off gold, often rather belatedly – that was critical to various countries’ economic revivals.

In many countries, the 2008/09 recession challenged the exclusive assignment of stabilisation responsibilities to monetary policy.  It did so for a simple reason –  conventional monetary policy largely ran out of room in most countries when policy interest rates got to around zero.   Some see a big role for quantitative easing in such a world.  Like Mitchell – although for different reasons –  I doubt that.    Standard theory allows for a possible, perhaps quite large, role for stimulatory fiscal policy when interest rates can’t be cut any further.

But, of course, in neither New Zealand nor Australia did interest rates get anywhere near zero in the 2008/09 period, and they haven’t done so since.    Monetary policy could have been  –  could be –  used more aggressively, but wasn’t.

As exhibit A in his argument for a much more aggresive use of fiscal policy was the Kevin Rudd stimulus packages put in place in Australia in 2008/09.   According to Mitchell, this was why New Zealand had a nasty damaging recession and Australia didn’t.  Perhaps he just didn’t have time to elaborate, but citing the Australian Treasury as evidence of the vital importance of fiscal policy –  when they were the key advocates of the policy –  isn’t very convincing.   And I’ve illustrated previously how, by chance more than anything else, New Zealand and Australian fiscal policies were remarkably similar during that period.   And although unemployment is one of his key concerns –  in many respects rightly I think –  he never mentioned that Australia’s unemployment rate rose quite considerably during the 2008/09 episode (in which Australian national income fell quite considerably, even if the volume of stuff produced –  GDP –  didn’t).

On the basis of what he presented on Friday, it is difficult to tell how different macro policy would look in either country if he was given charge.   He didn’t say so, but the logic of what he said would be to remove operational autonomy from the Reserve Bank, and have macroeconomic stabilisation policy conducted by the Minister of Finance, using whichever tools looked best at the time.  As a model it isn’t without precedent –  it is more or less how New Zealand, Australia, the UK (and various other countries) operated in the 1950s and 1960s.  It isn’t necessarily disastrous either.  But in many ways, it also isn’t terribly radical either.

Mitchell claimed to be committed to keeping inflation in check, and only wanting to use fiscal policy to boost demand where there are underemployed resources.    And he was quite explicit that the full employment he was talking about wasn’t necessarily a world of zero (private) unemployment  –  he said it might be 2 per cent unemployment, or even 4 per cent unemployment.     He sees a tight nexus between unemployment and inflation, at least under the current system  (at one point he argued that monetary policy had played little or no role in getting inflation down in the 1980s and 1990s, it was all down the unemployment.  I bit my tongue and forebore from asking “and who do you think it was that generated the unemployment?” –  sure some of it was about microeconomic resource reallocation and restructuring, but much it was about monetary policy).   But as I noted, in the both the 1990s growth phase and the 2000s growth phase, inflation had begun to pick up quite a bit, and by late in the 2000s boom, fiscal policy was being run in a quite expansionary way.

I came away from his presentation with a sense that he has a burning passion for people to have jobs when they want them, and a recognition that involuntary unemployment can be a searing and soul-destroying experience (as well as corroding human capital).  And, as he sees things, all too many of the political and elites don’t share  that view –  perhaps don’t even care much.

In that respect, I largely share his view.

Nonetheless, it was all a bit puzzling.  On the one hand, he stressed how important it was that people have the dignity of work, and that children grow up seeing parents getting up and going out to work.   But then, when he talked about New Zealand and Australia, he talked about labour underutilisation rates (unemployment rate plus people wanting more work, or people wanting a job but not quite meeting the narrow definition of actively seeking and available now to start work).   That rate for New Zealand at present is apparently 12.7 per cent –  Australia’s is higher again.     Those should be, constantly, sobering numbers: one in eight people.      But some of them are people who are already working –  part-time –  but would like more hours.  That isn’t a great situation, but it is very different from having no role, no job, at all.  And many of the unemployed haven’t been unemployed for very long.  As even Mitchell noted, in a market economy, some people will always be between jobs, and not too bothered by the fact.  Others will have been out of work for months, or even years.   But in New Zealand those numbers are relatively small: only around a quarter of the people captured as unemployed in the HLFS have been out of work for more than six months (that is around 1.5 per cent of the labour force).       We should never trivialise the difficulties of someone on a modest income being out of work for even a few months, but it is a very different thing from someone who has simply never had paid employment.  In our sort of country, if that was one’s worry one might look first to problems with the design of the welfare system.

Mitchell’s solution seemed to have two (related) strands:

  • more real purchases of good and services by government, increasing demand more generally.  He argues that fiscal policy offers a much more certain demand effect than monetary policy, and to the extent that is true it applies only when the government is purchasing directly (the effects of transfers or tax changes are no more certain than the effects of changing interest rates), and
  • a job guarantee.    Under the job guarantee, every working age adult would be entitled to full-time work, at a minimum wage (or sometimes, a living wage) doing “work of public benefit”.     I want to focus on this aspect of what he is talking about.

It might sound good, but the more one thinks about it the more deeply wrongheaded it seems.

One senior official present in the discussions attempted to argue that New Zealand was so close to full employment that there would be almost no takers for such an offer.   That seems simply seriously wrong.    Not only do we have 5 per cent of the labour force officially unemployed, but we have many others in the “underutilisation category”, all of whom would presumably welcome more money.     Perhaps there are a few malingerers among them, but the minimum wage –  let alone “the living wage” – is well above standard welfare benefit rates.   There would be plenty of takers.   (In fact, under some conceptions of the job guarantee, the guaranteed work would apparently replace income support from the current welfare system.)

But what was a bit puzzling was the nature of this work of public benefit.    It all risked sounding dangerously like the New Zealand approach to unemployment in the 1930s, in which support was available for people, but only if they would take up public works jobs.  Or the PEP schemes of the late 1970s.   Mitchell responded that it couldn’t just be “digging holes and filling them in again”.  But if it is to be “meaningful” work, it presumably also won’t all be able to involve picking up litter, or carving out roadways with nothing more advanced than shovels.  Modern jobs typically involve capital (machines, buildings, computers etc) –  it accompanies labour to enable us to earn reasonable incomes –  and putting in place the capital for all these workers will relatively quickly put pressure on real resources (ie boosting inflation).   If the work isn’t “meaningful”, where is the alleged “dignity of work”  –  people know artificial job creation schemes when they see them –  and if the work is meaningful, why would people want to come off these government jobs to take existing low wage jobs in the prviate market?

The motivation seems good, perhaps even noble.  I find quite deeply troubling the apparent indifference of policymakers to the inability of too many people to get work.   The idea of the dignity of work is real, and so too is the way in which people use starting jobs to establish a track record in the labour market, enabling them to move onto better jobs.

But do we really need all the infrastructure of a job guarantee scheme?  In countries where interest rates are still well above zero, give monetary policy more of a chance, and use it more aggressively.   For all his scepticism about monetary policy, it was noticeable that in Mitchell’s talks he gave very little (or no) weight to the expansionary possibilities of exchange rate.    But in a small open economy, a lower exchange rate is, over time, a significant source of boost to demand, activity, and employment.    And winding back high minimum wage rates for people starting out might also be a step in the right direction.

And curiously, when he was pushed Mitchell talked in terms of fiscal deficits averaging around 2 per cent of GDP.  I don’t see the case in New Zealand –  where monetary policy still has capacity –  but equally I couldn’t get too excited about average deficits at that level (in an economy with nominal GDP growth averaging perhaps 4 per cent).  Then again, it simply can’t be the answer either.    Most OECD countries –  including the UK, US and Australia –  have been running deficits at least that large for some time.

It is interesting to ponder why there has been such reluctance to use fiscal policy more aggressively in countries near the zero bound.   Some of it probably is the point Mitchell touches on –  a false belief that somehow countries were near to exhausting technical limits of what they could spend/borrow.      But much of it was probably also some mix of bad forecasts –  advisers who kept believing demand would rebound more strongly than it would –  and questionable assertions from central bankers about eg the potency of QE.

But I suspect it is rather more than that –  issues that Mitchell simply didn’t grapple with.  For example, even if there is a place for more government spending on goods and services in some severe recessions, how do we (citizens) rein in that enthusiasm once the tough times pass?  And perhaps I might support the government spending on my projects, but not on yours.  And perhaps confidence in Western governments has drifted so low that big fiscal programmes are just seen to open up avenues for corruption and incompetent execution, corporate welfare and more opportunities for politicians once they leave public life.  Perhaps too, publics just don’t believe the story, and would (a) vote to reverse such policies, and (b) would save themselves, in a way that might largely offset the effects of increased spending.      They are all real world considerations that reform advocates need to grapple with –  it isn’t enough to simply assert (correctly) that a government with its own currency can never run out of money.

I don’t have much doubt that in the right circumstances expansionary fiscal policy can make a real difference: see, for example, the experience of countries like ours during World War Two.    A shared enemy, a fight for survival, and a willingness to subsume differences for a time makes a great deal of difference –  even if, in many respects, it comes at longer term costs.

But unlike Mitchell, I still think monetary policy is, and should be, better placed to do the cyclical stabilisation role.    That makes it vital that policymakers finally take steps to deal with the near-zero lower bound soon, or we will be left in the next recession with (a) no real options but fiscal policy, and (b) lots of real world constraints on the use of fiscal policy.  Like Mitchell, I think involuntary unemployment (or underemployment for that matter) is something that gets too little attention –  commands too little empathy –  from those holding the commanding heights of our system.  But I suspect that some mix of a more aggressive use of monetary policy, and welfare and labour market reforms that make it easier for people to get into work in the private economy,  are the rather better way to start tackling the issue.   How we can, or why we would, be content with one in twenty of our fellow citizens being unable to get work, despite actively looking –  or why we are relaxed that so many more, not meeting those narrow definitions, can’t get the volume of work they’d like  –  is beyond me.   Work is the path to a whole bunch of better family and social outcomes –  one reason I’m so opposed to UBI schemes –  and against that backdrop the indifference to the plight of the unemployed (or underemployed), largely across the political spectrum, is pretty deeply troubling.

But, whatever the rightness of his passion, I’m pretty sure Mitchell’s prescription isn’t the answer.

I don’t think advocates of MMT really help their cause by using the label Modern Monetary Theory.   I understand the desire to make the point –  pushing back against those too ready to invoke “but the market will never buy it” argument –  that countries issuing their own currency never need to default.  As a technical matter they don’t.  Politically, some still choose to do so, and even if they never do there are very real (if not readily observable) limits well short of default, where the costs and risks no longer make any benefits worthwhile.  Only failed states actually lapse into hyperinflation.

But in substance, MMT isn’t primarily about monetary policy at all, and as I noted at the start of the earlier post.

He is a proponent of something calling itself Modern Monetary Theory, but which is perhaps better thought of as old-school fiscal practice, with rhetoric and work schemes thrown into the mix.

One can mount a case for a more active use of macro policy to counter unemployment running above inevitable frictional/structural minima (I’ve made itself for several years), one can also mount a case for a more joined-up approach to fiscal and monetary policy (I’m not persuaded by the case, but it was standard practice in much of the OECD for several decades), and any politicians who doesn’t have a burning passion about minimising involuntary unemployment isn’t really worthy of the office.  At present, in much of the world, that should be driving officials and politicians to (at very least) be better preparing to handle the next serious recession, in particular by doing something (there are various options) about the binding nature of the effective lower bound on nominal interest rates.  It might not be a cause that resonates in Democratic primary debates, but it could make a real difference to the prospects of many ordinary people caught up through no fault of their own when the next serious downturn happens.   Whatever one believes about the possibilities of fiscal policy –  and I tend towards the sceptical end in most circumstances –  you’d want to have as much help from monetary policy as one could get.

Perhaps next time, those who write the IGM questions could consider something a bit more nuanced, that might shed some light on the areas where there are real divergences of view around the light that economic theory and analysis can shed on such issues.

UPDATE: A post here, by a senior researcher at one of the regional Federal Reserve banks, also responds to this particular IGM survey.

NZ Police help the PRC repression [UPDATE]

[As noted below, despite checking several websites, including that of the PRC Embassy, the first part of this post was clearly in error. Accordingly I have updated the title of the post.   The second, and more substantive, point stands.]

Like everyone else I guess, I’ve been following pretty closely the coverage of the Christchurch attacks.    And in the course of all that I’d noticed various statements of condolence from various overseas governments.  Some perhaps perfunctory (it is the sort of thing decent governments do), others genuinely shocked and heartfelt.  I found it quite moving that the UK government was flying flags at half-mast on Friday.   But there were also statements from the French government, the German government, the Canadian government, various arms of the US government from the President down, the Norwegian government, the EU, the Australian government, the Dutch government, and that was before we even got to various Muslim-majority countries, some of whom had citizens killed in the attacks.

But, it appears, nothing at all from the government of the People’s Republic of China.  It is not as if they are unaware of the attacks –  when I checked there was a story in the Global Times and, searching for the Dutch response, the story I found was actually on Xinhua.   As we are often told, New Zealand firms do more business with firms from the People’s Republic of China than with firms in any other country.  There are lots of PRC nationals living here.  And barely two years ago, the then government (in the form of Simon Bridges) signed up to some aspirational goal of a “fusion of civilisations” with the PRC (in the Belt and Road MOU).  There is lots of talk from both sides  – and their champions – about wanting relationships of “mutual respect”.  It is has never been clear to me why we would want to respect such an evil regme, but I’m not the Prime Minister, Opposition leader, or the New Zealand China Council.  They do.  They claim to believe the rhetoric, even though the evidence (globally) is that the PRC has no respect for any other country; just that some are useful to them at times.  They seem pretty clear-sighted about that; it is our leaders who are deluded and/or attempt to delude us.

Perhaps I’ve missed some message, but you can check the (typically very useful) PRC Embassy website for yourself.    I’d count on the China Council to have tweeted a link to any statement of condolences, but there is nothing there either.   There is simply nothing visible.  Perhaps (or perhaps not) there was some quiet behind the scenes statement to MFAT, but friends don’t hide messages of condolence in circumstances like these.

(UPDATE:  It appears I had missed a statement of condolence. Thanks to the reader who drew this to my attention.)

Of course, the PRC is open to a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” risk.  After all, as a matter of official government policy, the PRC authorities currently have interned, in concentration camp conditions, an estimated 1.5 million Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.    People have been physically abused in these camps, denied all rights, and some have even been killed.  There are credible reports of the PRC using imprisoned Uighurs as a source for the large-scale PRC organ transplant business.  But even with this record, it is still quite a lapse for the PRC to have offered no official condolences on the mass murder of 49 (Muslim) people in New Zealand.  One of those small things that helps bring home the sort of regime the PRC is, and they way view a country like New Zealand (hint: not at all as the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition would like us to believe).

(In fact, given that in Tarrant’s manifesto he explicitly states that the country he most admires is the PRC –  ethnonationalism and all that I guess – you might have thought the PRC authorities would have been going out of their way to offer condolences.  Except that…….they didn’t.)

As I noted the other day, our Police –  certainly with the acquiesence of MFAT, and probably with that of the government –  has made itself party to aiding and abetting the dreadful abuses in Xinjiang (and elsewhere): their Assistant Commissioner is a visiting professor at the

People’s Public Security University of China – the first foreigner to hold such a role.

The university is where China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) trains the elite of China’s police. …..

The Ministry of Public Security does this dreadful stuff, and our Police are signing on to help (not, of course, consciously re that particular aspect, but it is all one organisation, and Police and MFAT know very well what they do –  not just in Xinjiang, but as instruments of oppression right across the country).

Perhaps now, once they have a few spare minutes, it might be time for Mike Bush, the Police Commissioner, to reconsider and tell his Assistant Commissioner to pull out of his visiting professor appointment, and stop assisting in the oppression of (inter alia) Muslims in Xinjiang.    If he lacks the decency, the imagination, the moral compass to do even that, then it is about time that the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs get the Minister of Police in a room and tell him to instruct the Commissioner to discontinue that relationship.

The New Zealand Police aiding and abetting the PRC (absence of) system of repression was appalling enough a few days ago.  With 49 dead Muslims in Christchurch –  and not a word from Beijing – it is well past time for our authorities to come to their senses, and completely dissociate ourselves, and our people, from the oppression in Xinjiang.

(Perhaps some belated PRC message will finally come, but it is now 2:15 on Saturday and there is still no sign of anything.  Times like these help confirm who your friends really are.)

Spending….just as we have for decades

There was a strange editorial in the Listener this week, lamenting what they see as New Zealanders’ mania for consumption spending.  The editorial starts from the fact that the proportion of New Zealanders reaching age 65 mortgage-free has been in decline, and goes off half-cocked from there.   There is no mention at all, for example, of the other important fact that New Zealand real house prices have risen very sharply and are now, relative to incomes, some of the most expensive in the world.  You would expect that would change the distribution of indebtedness and make it more likely that more old people would still have debt (as well as an artificially more valuable, not very liquid, asset).

But whoever wrote the editorial is convinced that the problem is consumption.

“We’ve felt freer to upgrade the car, have a holiday or renovate using debt rather than savings”

“Loans have seemed so affordable, and consumer goods so increasingly accessible, that the “on-the-house” habit has done further damage to the economy.  It has three highly undesirable featires: low to stalled productivity, very low income growth and consumptive spending bounding ahead.”

“…a more deep-seated problem than our failure to tax capital gains. It’s about how we’re spending –  and perhaps more importanyly, why we’re spending.  The internet has made every product imaginable deliverable to our doors –  amped up by such marketing constructs as Black Friday – and ambient anxiety-fuelling over “not missing out” at Easter, Christmas, Halloween and the like have stoked our spending to ever higher records.”

and so on.

But it is, pretty much, a fact-free zone.

It shouldn’t be surprising that (real) spending is higher than it used to be and that people are buying more stuff.   We have higher incomes than we used to have.  Yes, I bang on more than most about the failure of policy here and weak productivity growth, but real per capita GDP is now about 90 per cent higher than it was in 1970.   All else equal, one might expect the typical New Zealander to be consuming a lot more stuff (goods and services) –  they can afford to.

And how has consumption spending tracked relative to income?   This chart shows all consumption (public and private) as a share of net national income.  Net national income is the measure of how much income residents of New Zealand have available to spend: relative to GDP, it subtracts the bit of New Zealand production that actually accrues to foreigners (well, non-residents), and also subtracts an allowance for depreciation (some of gross earnings needs to be spent on just maintaining/replacing the capital stock that helps generate the income).  To believe the Listener story, the line should be trending upwards, perhaps especially since the financial system was liberalised in the mid 1980s.

consumption to NNI.png

It doesn’t of course.   The trend has been dead-flat for decades now.  There is some cyclical variability –  those last two peaks were the years of serious recessions (March years 1992 and 2009) – since consumption spending tends to be more stable than national income.      Fiscal policy makes a difference too: when governments are running big surpluses (as in the early 00s) the consumption share of income tends to be temporarily subdued.   On the other hand, there is no sign that, in aggregate, financial liberalisation made any material difference.  Markedly higher house prices haven’t either –  which shouldn’t really be surprising, as for every person who feels a bit wealthier, there is another for whom home purchase is that much further off.

And there just is no story, able to be defended from the data, about New Zealanders in aggregate on a consumption splurge.   Sure our savings rates are modest by international standards, but they’ve been so for a long long time.  And, to repeat, consumption is consistently less than income (see chart).  Mr Micawber would approve

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

That long-term chart used total consumption (public and private).  For many purposes that is the right metric to use: there is a considerable degree of substitutability between government consumption and private consumption. (And if, for example, the government gave you a voucher to pay for your kids’ schooling redeemable only at the local state school, the resulting education services would probably be measured as private consumption rather than –  as at present –  government consumption.  Nothing of substance would have changed, just the labelling).

But there is a breakdown between public and private consumption going back as far as 1987.  Here is that chart, with the components again shown as shares of net national income (March year annual data).

consumption 2

No trend (beyond “almost dead flat”).  For what little it is worth, in the most recent year both public and private consumption spending were a touch below the respective 30 year averages.

The sad truth is that actual consumption in New Zealand is probably quite a bit lower than it should be.     Back in 1970, real GDP per capita in New Zealand was about the same as that in Germany.   These days, average GDP per capita in Germany is about 30 per cent higher than that in New Zealand (and hourly productivity is about 60 per cent higher).  The Germans not only get to consume more stuff but (in economist-speak) to consume more leisure (hours worked per capita are much higher in New Zealand than in Germany).    If we’d managed to match German economic performance, almost certainly the typical New Zealand household would be consuming more, not less.  Quite possibly our average savings rate might be a bit higher too.

I’m a Puritan by upbringing and inclination and so when I read lines like this from the Listener editorial

“Popular TV home-renovation contests and “property porn” create a chronic sense of FOMO, with faddy edicts: one must refit one’s kitchen and bathroom every five years; last year’s wallpaper is now dated.”

I can nod along (even while wondering just how many people actually behave that way).  Being Puritan by background, middle-aged, and male, the idea of “fast fashion” just seems weird. “Black Friday” is an alien import, and I buy books from (among other places) charity shops (rather than providing them –  as the editorial puts it  –  with “unsaleable dumpings from nouveau declutterers”).    But odd as some of these phenomena might be, they really don’t seem to add up to much in the aggregate consumption data.

There are big problems around the housing market, almost entirely the result of central and local government choices.   We should worry –  as the Listener does – about the growing share of people carrying debt into old-age, or never having been able to buy a house in the first place.  But the issues have very little to do with some wholly-mythical national consumption splurge.   And responsibility needs to be sheeted home to central and local governments, not to consumers trying to make the best of their, increasingly constrained, options.