Why does good government matter?

That was the title of a speech Jacinda Ardern gave in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago.   For the short trip to Melbourne, the Prime Minister had eschewed commercial flights and taken an RNZAF plane instead, only to have the plane break down.  It later emerged (page 11) that her office knew how badly this bit of New Zealand’s government was run

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There must have been some wry chuckles in parts of the Australian government and public sector.

The “progressives” who turned out to hear Ardern (it was an ANZSOG event, so I presume lots were public servants and academics) appear to have loved her.  Stuff reported that

The event on Thursday night attracted more than 2000 people. Ardern appeared to rapturous applause, and was told that she had put fire in the belly and power in the hearts of Australians.

In The Guardian one particular left-wing Australian academic, a former adviser to Julia Gillard, lost all sense of reason and perspective, claiming Ardern as “one of the world’s great leaders”, and hankering for something different, for New Zealand type politics and reform.

In more recent times it seems that for every policy success achieved by New Zealand, Australia has suffered an equal and opposite failure.

Which is, no doubt, why so many hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders have migrated to Australia and so few Australians to New Zealand (even though we make it easier for them to come, than it is for us to settle in Australia) and why when our two countries were once more or less economically level-pegging, Australia is now so much richer and more productive than New Zealand is.  Don’t take it from me: as Australian Labor MP Andrew Leigh put it in his recent article, productivity makes a real difference, and creates real opportunities and choices.

For a time there was a strange phenomenon whereby people on the right in Australia tried to talk up John Key and Bill English as great leaders and economic managers (mostly, it seemed, in reaction to people they didn’t like in Australia –  whether Rudd, Gillard, Abbott or Turnbull).  Curiously, this particular left-wing academic manages to embrace that strange line as well –  Jacinda Ardern is great and so was John Key (“exceptional leadership”).  Going by results, could we perhaps trade these stellar figures for someone Australians think is less impressive, but who might actually address some of the serious New Zealand problems and failures?

But the real point of this post was about the Jacinda Ardern’s text.   When I first heard the title (“Why does good government matter?”) my immediate reaction was along the lines of “how would she know?”, but I guess it is possible to recognise what good government might be even if, as a serving Prime Minister, you aren’t presiding over such a beast.   A good start might be recognising that as Prime Minister you might perhaps be thought of as chief executive of the government but not –  contrary to the PM’s suggestion in her text –  of “the country”.

I’d have thought the question of why good government matters was pretty straightforward.  Governments exercise enormous power –  actual and potential (the latter especially in a country like New Zealand with few formal checks and balances) –  take an enormously large share of our incomes (equal to more than 30 per cent of GDP), and any agency that powerful needs to be kept in check, and we need assurances that those in charge of the goverment are operating efficiently, effectively, compassionately, honestly, openly, knowing their own limitations, and so on.    Good goverments can do some good.  Bad governments can be incredibly dangerous and damaging.  Look, after all, at the productivity or housing records in New Zealand –  or at the 10 per cent of working age adults living on welfare.

But there is little sense of any of this in Jacinda Ardern’s speech.  I guess she is a socialist –  former president of the International Union for Socialist Youth –  speaking to an audience of people with pretty similar beliefs about the desirability of a big and active government, with little emphasis on how –  time after time –  governments mess things up.

Ardern’s imperial mindset is on display early in the speech

Good government matters, because government affects everything.

Breathtaking.  The love of husband for a wife (and vice versa).  Of a parent for a child?  Our core beliefs –  those under the label of religion and others –  that shape what we value?   Friendships?  Whether or not the All Blacks win the World Cup?

I suppose you could mount a defence of the Prime Minister along the lines of bad governments can interfere even in these things, but there is not even a hint of that in her address – no sense at all of the appropriate limits of government or of the failures of even the most capable and well-intentioned governments.    In fact in the very next sentence she – I guess she is a Socialist –  goes on to suggest that this “government affects everything” line is something “we” (she and the smart active government types) “perhaps take for granted”.  She tells us, quite seriously, that she was “gutted” that an old school friend had no interest in politics: but then Ardern has never known anything but politics, and that simply isn’t (fortunately) the case for most people.   But she really wants to a better class of citizen to be worthy of people like her.

She goes on with unsupported stuff

Around the world, democratic values and institutions are under threat in a way that many of us never expected to see in our lifetimes.

It would perhaps be good if she were a bit more specific.   Perhaps she had the PRC in mind, and the way she and her colleagues repeatedly defer to PRC interests and pressures, allow PRC regime/Party-affiliated individuals to serve in our Parliament?  But I’m guessing not.

Perhaps she isn’t too keen to Vladimir Putin (neither am I) or Viktor Orban (not ideal either) but most adults are old enough (“our lifetimes”) to remember when these places were far far worse.   She surely can’t mean Brexit –  which was, after all, the choice of the British voters in a hotly-contested energised referendum?   And yet I fear she might, because in the next sentence we read

Nationalist sentiment that closes off the possibility of countries working together is surging.

Except that it doesn’t, does it.  Free and independent nations often choose to work together on specific items of mutual interest (eg no sign of the UK pulling out of NATO).  Aren’t Australia and New Zealand proudly independent countries –  doesn’t the PM tell us at every opportunity about her “independent” foreign policy? –  and yet we work closely together and are still able to disagree, and not subsume ourselves in one combined “New Australasia”.

Strangely, in her paean to good government, the Prime Minister talks of how

Norms that we in New Zealand and Australia take for granted – the rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power, freedom of expression – are being challenged in new and more explicit ways.

Must have been the PRC she was talking about again surely? But I guess not.

I’m old enough to remember when military coups in various African and Latin American countries were the regular fare on Morning Report, and when from the Fulda Gap eastwards few had the benefit of the rule of law, freedom of expression, and Party rule was something akin to the end of history.    Things are better now in so much of the world.  And 23 Democrats are lined up across the political spectrum to try to defeat Donald Trump in an open and contested election.

But she also mentioned “freedom of expression” –  the same Prime Minister whose government is beavering away on plans to restrict that freedom in New Zealand, whose government made mere possession of the manifesto of Brenton Tarrant an offence punishable by many years of imprisonment.

To this point she seemed to be merely warming up with some generic tropes for his left-wing audience.  And then it was into the red meat with a strong denunciation of the reforms of the 1980s and early 1990s –  all this from a Prime Minister of the same party that did many of the reforms.

In many countries, while the very wealthiest have grown consistently wealthier, the rest have seen little or no real rise in their incomes or their living standards – over decades.

Inequalities that deepened with the great deregulating reforms of the 1980s and 90s have become a permanent feature of these economies – not a brief moment of pain.

That is certainly the case in New Zealand.

Except that very little of that stacks up against the evidence.  In New Zealand wages have been rising faster than the capacity of the economy to pay (growth in nominal GDP per hour worked), income inequality hasn’t widened for decades, and to extent there have been issues in New Zealand they have to do largely with housing –  where successive governments have presided over grossly over-regulated urban land markets.

And look at her try to distance herself from and disown all sorts of reforms  (notice that “said to”)

Starting in 1984, through to the 1990s, we removed regulations that were said to hamper business, slashed subsidies, transformed the tax system, dramatically cut public spending and massively reduced welfare benefits paid to the sick, those caring for children and the unemployed.

Now we can argue whether those regulatory reforms were necessary, but regardless the numbers speak for themselves.

And yet she shows no sign of even understanding the numbers, repeating the same line she took into the 2017 election, claiming that in aggregate the economy did well, but the “right” distribution didn’t happen, as if oblivious –  or uninterested –  in the continued widening gap between the level of productivity in New Zealand and that in leading advanced OECD economies (and than in Australia).

She does go on to devote a paragraph to housing markets, but shows no sign of actually understanding the issues, suggesting that low interest rates are the cause of the problem.  Similarly she laments technological advance putting “people out of work” (it is called productivity –  doing more with less), seemingly oblivious to the incredibly high labour force participation (and employment) rates we actually have in New Zealand (higher, for example, than in Australia).

And in a line of (stunning) naivete, we read this

Stunningly, our most connected generation in New Zealand, has also been found to be our loneliest.

And in the next line (emphasis added),

what does good government look like, not for us but for the very people who are turning away from us?

The Prime Minister of the ANZSOG (public servant and academic) audiences, “people like us”.

And so she goes on

Domestically, some have chosen to reject the independent and expert public service and the possibility of a mutually respectful and diverse nation.

Could we perhaps have one of those “independent and expert public services”, instead of the degraded (for example) Treasury we currently have in New Zealand?

Abroad, they reject the international institutions that they paint as responsible for both economic and cultural problems when they aren’t necessarily at fault.

One of my old bosses used to jump up and down when we (unspecifically) tarred unnamed individuals.  She might be a fan of the EU, but there is no reason why the British public should be, or why them choosing the pull back from the push for a federal Europe should be any sort of marker of societal failure or decline.    And if the IMF, the World Bank, the UN etc do little harm, they don’t do much good either.  And if she wants to criticise the US over the WTO, perhaps she should say so directly –  or perhaps even live the view that free trade benefits most those who take off restrictions on their people, and take a lead and remove New Zealand’s remaining tariffs and import restrictions.

And then

So this is one answer that is available to people – and that some are signing up for. After all, fear and blame is an easy political out.

Except that some people –  parties and individuals, Labour included –  are to blame for our housing disaster, our dreadful productivity performance.  That blame should be sheeted home.

We get several mentions in the speech of high rates of GDP growth but (I think) not a mention of immigration –  which the PM and the ANZSOGers love –  and not a hint of per capita income growth, let alone the (lack of) productivity growth.  Productivity creates possibilities and options, eases hard choices etc.  But Ardern seems to prefer not to know.

And we get stories about “social and economic inequality” driving deprivation, poverty and crime, but nothing at all about cultural failures (a point Winston Peters was making this week), family breakdown, or choices and individual responsibility.   Free societies can’t flourish without strong and functioning families and cultures.

As she was talking to public servants, there is several pages of talk about public services reforms –  but nothing about transparency, nothing about accountability, nothing about excellence, nothing about (say) fixing a system in which the head of the State Services Commission largely exonerates his buddy the outgoing Secretary to the Treasury after a monumental stuff-up, revealing an inability to operate under pressure at the very top of our public sector.  Once upon a time Labour talked of being the “most open and transparent government ever”.  Now even people on the left just scoff and make fun of the claim.   And if the public service is in such good shape (as she claims) doesn’t it make it very clear that responsibility for the severe ongoing policy failures really lies with her (and her colleagues, and people elected before her from her party and others).

The speech ends with the claim that “Good government need not be an oxymoron”.  At one level that is obviously true, and yet at another it invites the reaction “and yet surely in New Zealand in recent decades it has proved to be so”.   And if it weren’t for the ideological blinkers of her audience (for whom her main appeal seems to be that she is the “not Scott Morrison” or the “not Donald Trump”, you’d have to marvel at the presumption of the Prime Minister offering lectures on good government to a country that is so much richer and materially more sucessful than New Zealand is, to which so many New Zealanders have moved in recent decades, and when her government has done so little.

For those –  as many do –  who praise Jacinda Ardern as a great communicator it was also striking to read the speech and not find a single fresh or interesting idea, not even a fresh or startling way of making an old point. It was as if some public servant or PMO staffer had simply turned the handle and churned out a set of cliched notes, empty of almost any substance, with nothing to leave people thinking.   Is there anything to this alleged communication skill, beyond the level of individual empathy –  not an un-useful quality in a Prime Minister, but hardly the foundation for any sort of transformative government.

In his Herald column last week, Matthew Hooton brought me up short with this summary

The Ardern Government is the emptiest and most incompetent in living memory,

But it is hard to disagree (despite some competition for the title) and the problem starts at the top.  So much of what the Prime Minister says is vacuous –  almost devoid of content –  and it has been matched by an absence of any serious steps to deal with pressing failures (or utter failure in, for example, an actual initiative: KiwiBuild), in turn presumably built on  no compelling narrative about what has been done wrong in the past, and what might make a material difference in the future.  Endless blather about wellbeing doesn’t change that failure.

For those who doubt the “vacuous” charge, consider finally this

Someone I debate these things with, perhaps inclined to making a few more allowances than I am, observed “even I have to agree that is pretty vacuous”.

We really need good  –  disciplined, rigorous, courageous, open, self-aware, limited – government.  We don’t have it.

 

Thoughtful analysis of productivity from the Opposition

The Opposition in the Australian Federal Parliament that is.

In my post yesterday, I noted  that Simon Bridges’s latest speech continued the pattern in which our Opposition pretends there is no real structural problem in the New Zealand economy: no decades of productivity underperformance, no near-complete absence of any productivity growth in the last several years (whether under National or Labour).

And so it was some mix of refreshing and depressing (would that it were so in our country) to yesterday read a new paper by the Australian Shadow Assistant Minister for Treaasury on “tackling Australia’s productivity crisis”.  No doubt it helps that the Shadow Assistant Minister was previously a professor of economics at the Australian National University (I wrote about a paper he gave in New Zealand last year here).   And perhaps the political context is different: it is now six years since the ALP was in (federal) office and it is three years until the next election.  And Leigh isn’t the highest profile ALP politician.  Nonetheless, a moderately senior figure in the main opposition party actually went to the effort of writing a serious paper on productivity failures in Australia (not even engaging mainly in gotcha politics –  all the fault of the other lot).   Would that it were so here.  If National doesn’t have any former professors of economics, I’m sure there must be some serious economists around who would be National supporters and might be happy to help, were the party to be seriously interested in addressing –  rather than avoiding –  the issue.

And I don’t say any of this because I agree with Andrew Leigh’s prescriptions.  Mostly I don’t –  in fact, to a first approximation I think he has the wrong mental model of the Australian economy –  but he is a politician showing every sign of trying to take the issue seriously.  Productivity growth is what underpins any long-term sustainable improvement in material living standards.  As he puts it (with his particular left-wing emphases)

Too often, Australians see productivity as a dirty word — synonymous with working harder, rather than working smarter. But productivity should lead to a better quality of life, in which people have more choices in the workplace and more opportunities to spend time with friends and family. The path towards higher productivity should also allow us to live in a cleaner environment, and to be more generous to the needy. Tackling major challenges, from gender equity to traffic congestion, is easier in a highly productive economy.

Here is how Leigh introduces his article

At the start of June, the Productivity Commission quietly dropped a bombshell. Australia’s productivity growth had basically stalled. Labour productivity — output per hour worked — was more or less flatlining. After a generation in which labour productivity had grown at almost 2 per cent a year, it had tumbled to just 0.2 per cent.

The commission called the results “mediocre” and “troubling,” but for some sectors they were downright appalling. In farming, mining, construction, transport and retail, labour productivity went backwards. In other words, workers in those sectors were producing less per hour than they had the year before. The latest numbers continued a trend of weakening productivity growth that the commission dates back to 2013.

To understand why Australia’s productivity crisis is so serious, it’s worth recognising why productivity matters. Through Australia’s history, our economy has become massively more productive. Australian workers today produce nearly four times as much output every hour than in the 1960s. This has been a central driver of rising living standards.

Productivity measures how efficiently the economy turns labour and capital into goods and services. When the Australian economy becomes more productive, we are producing more output from a given level of inputs. Higher productivity creates the potential for household incomes to rise faster than the rate of inflation. A more productive economy can be more generous to the disadvantaged, can reduce its impact on the natural environment, and can play a bigger role in international affairs.

Productivity doesn’t automatically bring fairness: in recent times, workers haven’t received their fair share of the modest productivity growth delivered by the economy. But without rising productivity, wages will eventually stagnate and living standards will stop increasing. Whether your priority is longer lifespans or lower taxes, raising Newstart or building motorways, you should be in favour of productivity growth. Productivity is the engine of the economy, and right now, that engine is making a nasty rattling noise.

Note that in the final paragraph of that extract is one difference between Australia and New Zealand.    In New Zealand wage growth has outstripped growth in nominal GDP per hour worked (ie the combination of terms of trade and productivity) for some time, but this is the Australian version of that chart

wages in aus

There is a variety of possible explanations, but the comparable New Zealand chart slopes upwards, not downwards.

But how does the aggregate productivity picture look for Australia?  This is quarterly ABS series of real GDP per hour worked.

aus prod.png

In the last two or three years, the picture is quite as bad (no growth at all) as in New Zealand –  bearing in mind that the average level of productivity in Australia is far higher than in New Zealand.

Leigh makes a lot of an asserted relative deterioration in Australia’s position this century.  In doing so he relies on a recent speech from a senior Australian Treasury official on productivity (another contrast to New Zealand), reporting some research work Treasury had done.

For Australia, the most hard-hitting presentation came from Treasury’s Meghan Quinn, who revealed that researchers in her department, led by Dan Andrews, had been investing in a new analysis that links together workers and firms, and delving deeply into fresh data about the dynamics of the Australian economy. Since 2002, Quinn showed, the most productive Australian firms (the top 5 per cent) had not kept pace with the most productive firms globally. In fact, Australia’s “productivity frontier” has slipped back by about one-third. The best of “Made in Australia” hasn’t kept pace with the best of “Made in Germany,” “Made in the Netherlands” or even “Made in America.”

Go to Quinn’s speech and you find this chart (unfortunately a bit fuzzy)

quinn

The left hand panel is the point Leigh is making.  It doesn’t look very good.

On the other hand, the economywide cross-country comparisons really don’t look so bad at all (and being annual data you don’t see the recent flattening in the way the quarterly chart above shows).

In this chart, I’ve shown Australia’s real GDP per capita compared to an average for Leigh’s three countries (Germany, Netherlands, US) and to the median for the leading OECD bunch (as I’ve used in previous charts and tables for NZ comparisons: US, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden).

AUs prod 2

On these economywide measures, the 1970s and 1980s were a pretty bad time for Australia, in relative productivity performance terms.   Since then, a pessimist might say Australia has more or less flat-lined relative to these leading OECD economies, while an optimist might suggest some modest beginnings of a catch-up process at work.   It isn’t a good performance at all –  the leaders are almost 20 per cent ahead of Australia and if the gaps are closing, it is an incredibly slow process –  but it is a rather different emphasis than in the Federal Treasury chart Leigh draws on.

That idea that it isn’t a good performance at all is reinforced once one realises the extent to which Australia has been able to draw anew on nature’s bounty in the last ten to fifteen years –  all those newly developed iron ore and LNG exports.  There has been nothing comparable in most of the other OECD countries I’ve used in the chart above (oil in the US might be closest thing, but much smaller relative to the size of the economy).   I haven’t looked in detail at the Australian Treasury research (which is still described as “forthcoming”) but perhaps what is going on is that existing Australia firms haven’t done that well (and as Leigh highlights the rate of business start-ups etc is low), but that the economy as a whole just has a whole lot of newly-exploited natural resources it has been able to use to hold up overall economic performance  (well done them: I had an email yesterday from some NZ public and private sector group oncerned to stop the depletion of New Zealand’s natural resources, a cause with which –  in this context –  I could not sympathise).

And yet, despite that, Australia has made very little progress in closing the gaps to the OECD leaders.  Here is another comparison I’ve long found interesting, looking at real GDP per capita in Australia relative to that in Norway, the other advanced OECD country able to exploit an abundance of natural resources in recent decades.

aus norway

Australia –  still building up its fresh wave of resource exports –  has regained a little ground relative to Norway in the last fifteen years (oil exports from Norway are falling, and gas looks to have peaked) but it isn’t dramatic, and has been barely a thing at all in the last few years.  And yet these two countries were more or less level pegging fifty years ago.

There wasn’t much (any?) mention of resource exports in Andrew Leigh’s article.  There also wasn’t much (anything?) on the other big change in Australian policy in the last fifteen years or so, the marked increase in policy-led immigration to Australia.  My own story of Australia’s underperformance is much like that for New Zealand.   Remoteness and distance are huge issues –  perhaps even increasingly important globally –  and the fortunes of both countries depend very very heavily on natural resources (and the ability of talented people and decent institutions to facilitate their extraction and utilisation).  It isn’t just a matter of simple division –  but it is close to it, bearing in mind what else we know about the Australian economy –  to suggest that had Australia’s population not been supercharged again by policy (like New Zealand bipartisan policy) that the bounty from the natural resources newly exploited would have translated into higher living standards for the average Australian, higher economywide productivity.

There are lots of detailed points in Leigh’s article, some of which seem more compelling than others (I’m not persuaded that getting more people into tertiary education is likely to make much economywide difference, when the people not going now are likely to be those who would benefit least from doing so –  it hasn’t been worth their while to do so). And I’m not convinced he has the right model to think about Australia –  where the bigger issues seem more macro in nature – but it is just refreshing to see a moderately senior active politician actively engaging in thinking about, writing about, talking about, how productivity performance might be markedly improved.  Because, as he says, it really matters to all of us.

Contemplating trade restrictions and industry protection

I’m just back from a family holiday in sunny south-east Queensland.  Being a New Zealander, I have a visceral fear of snakes, but as we saw them only in the zoo, one could concentrate on the upsides of Australia.   Seriously good newspapers for example.  Daily surf swims in the middle of July.  Plastic bags in plenty of shops (Queensland seems to have outlawed – the very useful –  thin supermarket bags but not others).   And, of course, one could look around, and read the papers, and contemplate what productivity and higher material living standards really mean.  It was a while since I’d been in Brisbane, and the central city certainly had a look and feel more prosperous than what one finds in Auckland (or Wellington).

At the turn of the century, GDP per hour worked (PPP terms) was about 31 per cent higher in Australia than in New Zealand, and on the latest OECD estimates than gap is now 41 per cent.    And it isn’t as if Australia itself is some stellar productivity performer.  (Those with longish memories may recall a time barely 10 years ago when there was serious political talk of closing the economic gaps with Australia, but –  as a result of policy choices of both National and Labour governments –  the gaps have just widened.)

I couldn’t see state-level GDP per hour worked data for Australia,  but there is GDP per capita data.  The gaps between New Zealand and Australia aren’t as large for per capita income as for labour productivity, simply reflecting the longer hours the typical New Zealanders engages in paid work over their lifetime.  For Australia as a whole, GDP per capita (PPP) terms is “only” 34 per cent higher than in New Zealand.  In Queensland –  with below average state GDP per capita –  that gap is “only” about 25 per cent.   Even a 25 per cent difference purchases a lot of (say) cancer drugs, new cars of whatever other public or private goods and services people aspire to.  I’m sure the Australian health system has its problems, but I was struck reading three papers a day over 10 days not to see stories about health underfunding.    And yet the (various levels of ) Australian governments spend a smaller share of GDP (35 per cent) than New Zealand governments do (38 per cent).

So there was sun, surf, papers, productivity in Queensland.  And there was another thing I always look out for abroad.

trout 2

I prefer fresh but the little supermarket near where we were staying “only” had smoked.  Not, in this case, the Australian product but (so I was surprised to notice when opening the packet) Norwegian.

trout 3.jpeg

The wonders of a global market and all that.   But just not in New Zealand.

There are, of course, plenty of trout in New Zealand –  all descendants of trout introduced in the 19th century (it isn’t exactly a native species).  In fact, some of the trout species in Australia was introduced from New Zealand.

But if there are lots of trout in New Zealand, the only way you can consume any is to go and catch one yourself, or make friends with someone who fishes for them and who will gift a trout to you.   It is as if I could only consume milk if I owned a cow or had someone close by who would give me milk.  Perhaps the first half of that sentence did describe much of the world prior to the 20th century, but even then the sale of milk wasn’t banned.  But the New Zealand government has for decades now banned the sale of wild trout.

When I went looking, I discovered that the sale of other trout isn’t outlawed in New Zealand, but as a recent regulatory impact statement prepared by the Department of Conservation put it.

The sale of trout (except for wild trout) is allowed in New Zealand. The reason it is not available for sale is because there is no way to obtain trout to sell – trout farming, selling wild trout, and importing trout are all prevented by legislation or the CIPO.

(that’s a customs import prohibition order).  The prohibition extends to smoked trout.  Here is the latest version of the restriction, just renewed a few months ago.

Read literally, clause 4(1)(b) appears to suggest that the imports for sale are only prohibited if they are for amounts of less than 10 kgs.

trout 4.png

That can’t have been what was intended, but it appears to be what the law says. [UPDATE: I misread it.]

There was a policy process undertaken last year that led up to the government’s decision to renew the import ban.  It was weird policy process, described thus

There has been no public consultation on the options covered by this paper. The views of the various interest groups are well known to officials, but there may be Treaty implications if a firm decision was taken without formal consultation with iwi. The nature of the issues mean that a decision has to be made as to which set of interests should be given precedence.

Officials –  of course –  consider they know all that needs to be known.  And quite Treaty issues arise in respect of foreign trade in a species itself introduced to New Zealand is beyond me –  but fortunately I’m no longer a public servant.

Of the official agencies that were consulted, MFAT actually favoured allowing the import restriction to lapse. I’m not usually a fan of MFAT –  and had Beijing objected for some reason, no doubt they’d have taken the other side –  but well done them on this one.  It isn’t a good look when New Zealand prattles on about open trade, rules-based orders, when it maintains in place a near-absolute prohibition of the importation of an innocuous, but tasty, food product.

I guess no one looks to the Department of Conservation for high quality and rigorous policy analysis, especially on economic issues.  Their RIS on the trout CIPO did nothing but reinforce those doubts.

The entire official case for the prohibition of imports of trout (and, by implication, for continuing restrictions on domestic trout farming –  although that isn’t the focus of this particular policy process) appears to rest on supporting the recreational trout fishing industry.

22. The import prohibition and the prohibition on the farming of trout are aimed at protecting the New Zealand wild trout fishery.

Like, for example, banning deer farming to protect hunting of deer in the bush?  Or pig farming?  Or salmon farming?

The officials even acknowledge that (for example) allowing the sale of salmon has not led to widespread salmon poaching, and that other countries successfully manage to have wild trout fishing and trout sales.  But, they plaintively suggest, New Zealand is somehow different.   For example

If imported trout could be sold, the illegal sale of wild trout would be much more difficult and costly to detect.

Which is, of course, not an argument for maintaining the existing restrictions but for removing both import and domestic sales (and farming) restrictions, not continuing to run industry assistance to a small tourism sector –  somewhat akin to the protection that used to be offered to the New Zealand car assembly industry or the New Zealand television assembly industry.  You get the impression reading the document that the DOC officials have simply got all too close to their mates in Taupo, and are subject to regulatory capture.

The documents contains this paragraph

42. The Government’s objectives in regard to the issues examined in this paper can be summarised as follows:
• Maximise recreational and tourism values of wild trout fishery
• Maximise employment and economic values of wild trout fishery
• Maximise economic growth and employment opportunities in the wider economy
• Provide for maximum consumer choice in purchasing decisions
• Minimise risk of friction in negotiations with trading partners.

These objectives are not referenced to any fuller document in which “the government” makes its case, and they have the feel of being made up on the fly with little or no supporting analysis.   They go on to state

43. The interactions between these issues mean that it is not always possible to progress all of these objectives simultaneously. Actions that could advance some of the objectives may restrict progress on other objectives. Decisions on which objectives should be given precedence therefore need to be made by elected Ministers.

In a way, of course, that is true.   If your goal is to maximise the size of the protected sub-industry, whether buttressed by direct subsidies (think film), import bans (trout), domestic production of a related product (trout farming ban) it will conflict with overarching goals about consumer choices and economic efficiency (as well as that lesser goal about living the words about a free and open economy with respect to trading partners).  But, as in so many industries in the past,  that tension should be resolved in favour of the consumer and of economic efficiency.  In this case, it isn’t even clear that there really is much of a tension.  DOC’s RIS offers not the slightest evidence that allowing imports of trout meat (smoked or otherwise), or even allowing domestic farming of trout, would make any difference whatever to the number of North American anglers who come to Taupo.  Perhaps on the domestic side there might be a smaller number of trout fisherman…….in the same way that a much smaller proportion of us milk house cows, collect our own eggs, or whatever than we once used to.   The only “value” really being protected here is that people who don’t go fishing shouldn’t be able to eat trout in New Zealand.  If that is a values-based policy framework, it is a pretty weird one.  Logically, one might apply the same daft policy to native fish too.

It is really quite shoddy advice, in support of shoddy policy.   As one gets to the end of the RIS one gets the impression a reasonable number of government departments are beginning to conclude that the policy around trout is a nonsense and should eventually be revisited.   But it isn’t clear that DoC is among them –  then again, they are probably brought up to dislike all introduced species (may not even be too keen on people, disturbing that natural environment), and they simply aren’t the agency that should be responsible for an issue of industry protection policy and interfering with the ability of New Zealanders to easily consume a safe and lawful product.

There was petition last year seeking to introduce trout farming in New Zealand.  Whether it gets anywhere, only time will tell, but it is hard to be optimistic when the current government extended the existing import ban again only last year.   Perhaps New Zealand consumers will have to hope that foreign governments will take up the issue more seriously, and put more sustained pressure on the New Zealand government to remove the barriers between consumers and trout (more cheaply and efficiently than holidaying abroad).

 

Australia’s foreign trade

In the wake of the upset Australian election result on Saturday, I thought it might be a good day for a quick post on some Australia/New Zealand economic comparisons.

I often bang on about New Zealand’s atrociously poor longer-term economic performance, but if Australia’s longer-term performance is less bad by comparison, we are about the only country that makes them look less bad.

At present, for example, average real GDP per hour worked in Australia is about 15th in the OECD, with quite a gap to 14th.   To New Zealand readers that probably doesn’t sound too bad, said quickly, but in 1970 –  when the OECD series starts – Australia ranked 8th.   A hundred years or so ago, on the eve of World War One, Australia’s real GDP per capita –  the only measure for which there are long-run historical estimates –  was 1st equal among the countries that now make up the OECD (with New Zealand and the United States).

But my particular focus this morning is exports, as a share of GDP.   There is an old mercantilist sort of view –  which at times seems to be held by Donald Trump –  that somehow exports are a superior form of economic activity, and that whereas exports are in some sense good, imports are bad.  That isn’t my story at all.   Exports and imports are both good –  gains from trade and all that.  In many respects, at least at a national level, one doesn’t go too far wrong in saying that we export so that we can import.  Of course, firms export not countries, but over time and in the aggregate, our appetite for cars, jet aircraft, overseas holidays or Hollywood movies is only able to be met if we find other products and services we (firms based here, employing us etc) can successfully sell to the rest of the world.  And since, especially for small countries, there is a lot bigger market in the whole world (even just the whole advanced world) than at home, export success often tends to go hand in hand with wider economic success: it isn’t that the exports, per se, make you prosperous, but that you’ve been able to generate (or even dig up) products and services that other people will pay for: you’ve passed the (demanding) market test.   Empirically, countries that have sustainably caught up –  in GDP per capita or GDP per hour worked terms –  almost without exception have had strongly performing export sectors.

But what about New Zealand and Australia?

Here is the (nominal) share of exports in GDP for the two countries for the period since our quarterly data starts in 1987 (as the paeans to Bob Hawke last week remind us, at the time both countries were doing fairly far-reaching economic reforms).   This is simply the nominal value of exports over nominal GDP.

aus exports

That gap has closed, a lot, over the decades, perhaps especially over the last 15 years or so.

It is worth remembering two stylised facts:

  • remote countries tend to trade less internationally than do countries close to lots of other countries/markets (distance really does reduce economic opportunitites), and
  • small countries tend to trade internationally more (share of GDP) than large ones.

In economic terms, New Zealand and Australia are almost equally remote (arguably they a bit more so than we, since Australia is big relative to New Zealand).  So, all else equal, one wouldn’t really expect a country five times the (population) size of the other to be exporting a similar share of their GDP –  New Zealand should be well ahead.

There is another possible exports/GDP measure. This chart uses deflated (“real”) series for both exports and imports.  Statisticians tend to frown on it –  and I mostly don’t use it –  but it does strip out the direct effects of terms of trade fluctuations, which (for Australia in particular) can be large.

aus real exports

In New Zealand, there has been no increase in the volume of exports as a share of GDP this century.  In Australia, by contrast (and after a flat period) there has been a substantial increase this decade, primarily as the newly-exploited mineral resource projects have come on stream.   In both countries, the real volume of exports has increased – in New Zealand’s case by about 50 per cent since 2002 –  but in New Zealand trade with the rest of the world is a smaller share of GDP now, and in Australia it is larger.

Of course, even this story has its complexities.  Much of the mineral sector operating in Australia is foreign-owned, so that a chunk (but by no means all) of the benefit of the export surge is accruing to foreign shareholders rather than to Australians.  But without the surge in mineral exports –  a windfall to a considerable extent (although with a policy framework that allowed developments to proceed) –  it is hard not to look at Australia and conclude that on the present suite of economic policies –  much the same as prevail in New Zealand –  their relative productivity and income performance would have deteriorated even further over the years.

Perhaps the gaps between New Zealand and Australia would have narrowed a bit, but from the wrong direction.  Much better would be if both countries were doing something that credibly might move them back up the advanced country rankings.   If the re-elected Coalition is less likely to further damage Australia’s economic prospects than Labor, no party on either side of the Tasman really seems to have serious analysis or ideas –  or to particularly care – about reversing decades of relative decline.

 

Reading the RBA FSR on bank capital

One of the frustrating things about the Reserve Bank’s consultation on its proposal to greatly increase the amount of capital (locally incorporated) banks have to have to conduct their current level of business in New Zealand, is its utter refusal to produce any serious analysis comparing and contrasting their proposals to the rules (actual and prospective) in Australia.   The larger New Zealand banks are, after all, quite substantial subsidiaries of the very same Australian banking groups.    If there is a case to be made either that the New Zealand proposals are not more materially demanding than those in Australia, or that, if they are, there is a sound economic case for our regulators to take a materially more demanding stance than their Australian counterparts, surely you would expect that a regulator serious about consultation, allegedly open to persuasion (and working for a government that once boasted that it would be the “most open and transparent”) would make such a case.   But months have gone on and there has been nothing.

It is striking that over the entire period when the consultation has been open we have not had a Financial Stability Report from the Reserve Bank (I guess it is just the way the timing worked, but still…).      With proposals out for consultation that would force banks to have much higher risk-weighted capital ratios, working to the statutory goal focused on the soundness of the financial system, you’d have to assume that any FSR would conclude that the financial system at present was really quite rickety.   Perhaps they will when the next FSR comes out late next month, but (a) it would be a very big change of message from past FSRs, and thus (b) I’m not expecting anything of the sort.

A reader pointed out that the Reserve Bank of Australia released its latest Financial Stability Review last week.   The RBA isn’t the regulator of the financial system, but works closely with APRA, and has some systemic responsibilities (including the analysis and reporting ones reflected in the FSRs).   Capital requirements (on both sides of the Tasman) feature in the chapter on the Australian financial system.

The discussion starts this way (ADI = Australian deposit-taking institution).

RBA 1

You’ll recall that the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s proposal would (a) require major banks to have a minimum CET1 ratio of 16 per cent of risk-weighted assets, and (b) would measure risk-weighted assets in a more demanding way than Australia does.

Here is graph 3.6 –  a really nice chart with lots of information in a small space.

RBA 2

The first panel is the one of most relevance here, relating as it does to the four banks that have major operations in New Zealand.   The regulatory minima are shown in the two shades of purple, and the additional capital held above those regulatory minima is in blue.   Three of the four banks are already at the “unquestionably strong” benchmark level.

I also found the the second panel (other listed deposit-taking entities) interesting.  In a post earlier in the year, I suggested that too-big-to-fail arguments weren’t a compelling reason for higher minimum regulatory capital requirements, as there wasn’t obvious evidence that entities that no one regarded as too-big-to-fail were required by market pressures to have capital ratios materially above those prevailing at larger institutions.   This chart may suggest this point holds in Australia too (deposit insurance muddies the water, but does not apply to wholesale creditors).

The RBA discussion goes on

rba 3.png

with a footnote elaborating the point

RBA 4

Unlike the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, they don’t just claim it is hard to do international comparisons, and then blame copyright to defend not presenting any analysis.    And APRA has actually published its analysis comparing  the way risk weights etc are applied in Australia and other countries.

So the Reserve Bank of Australia (and, presumably, APRA) claims that the capital ratios applying to the major Australian banking groups are in the upper quartile internationally, based on actual CET1 ratios of “only” around 10.5 per cent.   The Reserve Bank of New Zealand, by contrast, has tried to claim –  with no real analysis, just a bit of gubernatorial arm-waving –  that its proposed CET1 minima of 16 per cent (measured materially more conservatively again) would also be inside the range of requirements in other advanced countries, probably also in the upper quartile.

At a substantive level, the two claims are just not consistent.    Perhaps the Australian authorities are wrong in their claims, but I doubt it.  I could advance several reasons to have more confidence in the Australia regulators’ claims:

  • they have a much deeper pool of expertise than the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, and two agencies (RBA and APRA) able to peer review work in the area before it is published,
  • the Australian parent banking groups are all listed companies and there is considerable broker analytical resource devoted to monitoring and making sense of the performance of those banks and the constraints on them,
  • for what they are worth, the credit ratings of the Australian banking groups are consistent with them having capital ratios and risk profiles in the upper (safer) part of the distribution of advanced country banks,
  • the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has simply avoided the Australian comparisons in all the material it has released (so far).

Whatever the absolute position, we can be totally confident that the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s CET1 minima are far more demanding than those APRA applies to the Australian banking groups  (16 per cent minimum –  perhaps 17-18 per cent actual –  vs the benchmark actual of 10.5 per cent in Australia, where the New Zealand requirements will be measured in a more conservative way.  Not one shred of argumentation has been advanced by the Reserve Bank of New Zealand to explain why they, in their wisdom, think New Zealand banks need so much higher risk-weighted capital ratios.   There might be a case to be made –  something about risk profiles, or reckless Australian regulators perhaps –  but they just haven’t made it  (and it would have to be a pretty compelling case given that the major New Zealand banks have large parents –  to whom the regulator might expect to look in a crisis –  whereas the Australian banking groups don’t).   That simply isn’t good enough.

The RBA goes on to discuss the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s proposals.

rba 5

That text correctly notes not suggest that the headline CET1 ratios required here would be much larger than those applying to the Australian banking groups, but would be measured in a more conservative way than has been the case hitherto (and more conservatively than APRA will be allowing Australian banks to do).

The rest of the paragraph interested me, especially that final sentence.  It appears to suggest that the rules would apply differently depending whether the capital of the New Zealand subsidiaries was increased through retained earnings or through a direct subscription of new equity by the parent.  In economic substance the two are the same, and regulatory provisions should be drawn in a way that reflects the substance.  But the paragraph is perhaps a reminder that one possibility open to the Australian parents, if the Reserve Bank persists with its proposals, is a divestment in full or in part.  Comments from the Reserve Bank Governor and Deputy Governor have suggested that they would not be averse to such an outcome, and might even welcome it.  I think a much less cavalier approach is warranted and that the New Zealand generally benefits from having banks which are part of much larger groups.

The RBA discussion also has a chart show bank profits in Australia since 2006 (I truncated a bigger chart so the dates aren’t showing).

rba 6

As they note, return on equity is less than it was in the mid-2000s, not inconsistent with the higher capital ratios (reduced variance of earnings) in place now.     The (simple) chart is perhaps consistent with the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s story that banks will come to accept lower ROEs on their New Zealand operations over time if higher capital ratios are imposed, but (a) the transition may still be difficult (especially for sectors with few competing lenders), and (b) there is no guarantee, since shareholders will focus on overall group risk/return, not the standalone characteristics of one individual unlisted subsidiary.

Part of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s attempt to obfuscate the Australian comparisons is to muddy the waters by suggesting something along the lines of ‘total capital requirements will end up being much the same, but our banks will have much better quality capital’.

As you can see from their own text, the Australian authorities put much more weight on the core (CET1) ratios, where Australia’s (quite demanding by international standards) expectations will be a lot less than those proposed for New Zealand.  But the Reserve Bank of Australia text touches on the additional loss-absorbing capital as well.

RBA 7

RBA 8

Here is the summary of the APRA proposals.  These additional requirements, if confirmed, would be able to be met with ‘any form of capital’, including (for example) the contingent-convertible bonds (typically hold by wholesale investors, and which convert to equity in certain pre-specificed distress conditions) which the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has taken such a dim view of (to disallow for capital purposes).  This additional loss-absorbing capacity is typically regarded as much cheaper than CET1 capital, and (coming on top of upper quartile CET1 funding) serves just as well in protecting the interests of creditors in the event of a failure of a major financial institution.   For any banking regulator interested at all in efficiency that should count strongly in its favour, but even more so in New Zealand where the big banks are subsidiaries of the Australian banking groups, failures will inevitably (and rightly) be handled on a trans-Tasman basis, and where most of what matters is securing a substantial share of residual assets for New Zealand depositors and creditors.

But even allowing for all that, look at the nice summary chart from APRA of their proposals

APRA 1

If fully implemented:

  • the APRA proposal for Australian banking groups would amount to a 16 per cent total capital ratio requirement, with risk-weighted assets measured the Australian way, while
  • by contrast, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand proposal would involve a 16 per cent CET1 capital ratio minimum requirement (8 per cent in Australia – the CET1 and CCB components), with risk-weighted assets measured the New Zealand way, and
  • the Reserve Bank proposal include a plan to raise the minimum risk-weights (in a not unsensible way, considered in isolation) that would mean a 16 per cent CET1 requirement in New Zealand might be equivalent to something like 19 per cent range in Australia.  The proposed floor –  risk-weighted assets calculated using internal models, relative to the standardised approach –  in Australia is, in line with Basle III. 72.5 per cent, and the RBNZ is proposing a 90 per cent floor: apply a ratio of 90/72.5 to give an indication of the scale of the possible effect).

The simple summary is that (even if the Reserve Bank of New Zealand ends up scrapping any Tier 2 capital requirements, and it seems quite ambivalent about them in the consultation document) its capital requirements will be (a) materially higher than those applied to Australia to the parent banking groups, (b) materially more costly, because of a largely-irrational aversion to forms of capital other than CET1, even though we have good reason to take seriously the claims of the Australian authorities (and the sense of the rating agencies) that Australian banks are already among the better-capitalised in the world.

In hundreds of pages of material, slowly released over several months, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has not provided a shred of evidence, or even argumentation, for why locally-incorporated banks operating here should face such an additional regulatory burden, with the attendant economic risks and costs.  Add in the refusal of the Bank to provide a decent cost-benefit analysis as part of the consultation (they promise only at the end of it all, when there is no further chance for public input, and no appeals), and there are few grounds to have confidence in what the Governor (prosecutor, judge, and jury –  with no appeal court) in his own case is suggesting.   We should expect better. The Minister of Finance (and the supine Board) should be demanding more.

For anyone in Wellington next week and interested, Ian Harrison (who used to do a lot of the Reserve Bank modelling work around bank capital) is doing a lunchtime lecture/seminar on the Reserve Bank proposals next Wednesday.   You might think I’m fairly critical of the Reserve Bank. Ian is more so, and tells me he has chased every reference in every document the Bank has published in support of its case, and still isn’t remotely persuaded of the merits of the Governor’s claims.

House prices and building: Australia and NZ

You may, like me, be intrigued by the stories emerging from Australia about falling house prices.    The fall in nationwide house prices isn’t that large –  still less than we experienced in New Zealand in 2008 – but (a) the economy isn’t in a recession, and (b) there is little sign yet that the falls are about to end soon.  Lower house prices would seem likely to mostly be “a good thing” –  cheaper goods and services typically are – and the banks are well-capitalised to cope with even some serious combination of bad economic times and falling house prices.  But on the other hand, whatever was causing this particular fall, I’d heard little to suggest that land-use rules were being substantially liberalised in Australia (any more than in New Zealand), so I’ve been –  and remain –  quite sceptical about the idea that Australian house prices would fall sharply and stay down.  And, of course, of anything similar in New Zealand.

Time will tell, but out of curiosity I decided to dig out a few numbers.   The first was a comparison of residential investment as a share of GDP.   This chart is in nominal (current price terms).

res nz and aus 1

And this is in real terms (which isn’t strictly kosher and is an approach frowned on by SNZ, but some analysts do it anyway).

res nz and aus 2

There are differences between the two charts, but the bit that caught my eye was that New Zealand has been devoting a larger share of GDP to house-building (and additions and alternations etc) than Australia for almost the entire decade.

Population growth is one of the biggest determinants of how much accommodation will be demanded.  Here is annual population growth in the two countries.

popn nz and aus

Over the last four to five years, our population growth rate has run quite a bit ahead of Australia’s.   All else equal, one percentage point faster population growth requires something like two percentage points of GDP larger share of residential investment (the net stock of residential dwellings – themselves depreciated –  is well above 100 per cent of GDP).

At least two other things complicate comparisons.  First, a big chunk of residential investment spending in New Zealand for several years after the Canterbury earthquakes was about repair and rebuild, not adding to the housing stock (relative to the pre-quake situation) at all.  There was nothing comparable in Australia, and so all else equal one should have expected a larger share of resources devoted to housebuilding here than in Australia.  And the other relevant factor is that intensification often involves the demolition (and loss) of existing dwellings: even in normal (non-quake) times not all new dwelling approvals add to the housing stock.

New Zealand has a reasonably long-running quarterly series on the estimated number of private dwellings.   I could only find the comparable Australia series back to 2011.  But this is what trends in the number of people per dwelling look like over the last few years.

people per dwelling

On the face of it, that is a pretty startling difference. (I did find reference to some Australia census data suggesting that in 1991 population per dwelling in Australia was also around 2.7.)

A declining ratio of people per dwelling is what might one expect in functioning house and land markets.  After all, both countries are getting richer, birth rates are lower than they used to be, people are living longer (ie a larger share of life after kids have left home), lifelong marriage from an early age doesn’t seem to be becoming more a thing.  But it –  a fall in the ratio –  is much harder to achieve when regulatory obstacles mean house prices are driven sky-high.   Then people squash together a bit more.

Another way of looking at the last few years of that chart is that over the seven years to September 2018 Australia had population growth of 11.8 per cent and the stock of dwellings increased by 12.7 per cent.  In New Zealand, over the same period, the population is estimated to have risen by  11.6 per cent and the stock of dwellings increased by only 8.6 per cent.   For the entire housing stock –  slow-moving at best –  that is a really big difference.

I haven’t mentioned (a) the large share of apartments built in Australia in recent years (which some look on favourably –  the Reserve Bank here always used to tout that record –  and others are more inclined to mutter about future potential urban slums etc), or (b) differences in credit conditions on the two sides of the Tasman (responsible, on some tellings, for the recent weakness of the housing market).

But looking across the numbers I’ve presented here, and bearing in mind that there has been little or no effective liberalisation of land use laws in New Zealand (or a fix to the construction products market), it is hard to see any good reason to expect that we will see any material or sustained drop in house and urban land prices here.

house prices jan 19

There will be a recession along eventually, ringfencing and a capital gains tax (both dubious new economic distortions) might dampen things a little, and the Reserve Bank’s capital proposals if implemented might exacerbate any downturn, but in the end if land remains artifically scarce (a bit like new cars in 1950s New Zealand) it remains hard to envisage a serious or substantial adjustment.   And responsibility for that failure –  and failure it is –  has to be sheeted home to the political parties that vie to govern us, notably National and Labour.

Australia: not even close to the most successful economy

In another useful reminder as to why I don’t subscribe to The Economist –  with a news, politics, and international affairs junkie 15 year old I’m tempted from time to time – it was hard to go past the heading of that magazine’s lead story this week:

What the world can learn from Australia: It is perhaps the most successful rich country

In the text, they make it clear that the “most successful” claim specifically includes economic success.

Okay, I’m happy to grant that Australia has done well around fiscal policy –  government revenue and expenditure as a share of GDP have been stable and moderate, and government debt has been kept low.   But Switzerland does about as well, and Sweden has much lower net government debt (large net assets), and both those countries manage productivity levels that are reasonably materially higher (almost 10 per cent more) than Australia.

Productivity is, in the old phrase, if not everything in the longer-term about economic performance then almost everything.  And here is a simple chart showing two comparisons, using OECD data which start in 1970.   The first line compares Australia’s real GDP per hour worked to the median of the top-tier group I’ve used in various posts and articles this year (the US, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and Denmark).   And the second line compares Australia to Norway.

australia performance

Did anyone in The Economist think of Norway –  not only does it have much higher average productivity (think oil and gas and few people –  and good institutions/smart people) but huge net government financial assets?

Average productivity in that frontier group of six is 20 per cent higher than in Australia.  In Norway it is 50 per cent higher.  And 50 years ago, Australia outperformed the median member of the six, and was level pegging with Norway.   Sure, the last 25 years or so haven’t been too bad, but at that rate of convergence it would take another couple of hundred years  (or more) to catch up again to the top tier group.    And even the very modest convergence has been supported by massive new natural resource developments.  Blessed with those opportunities if a country can’t do better than Australia has done, there looks to be something quite badly wrong.

And here is the ABS measure of real net national disposable income per capita, which takes account of (a) changes in the terms of trade, and (b) the portion of the GDP gains accruing to Australians.

RNNDI

They had a good 15 years, but there has been no growth in this measure of real purchasing power this decade.

What might be so very wrong?   Well, I’m sure there are plenty of micro regulatory things Australia  –  like every country –  could do better.      But what really stands out about Australia, relative to the other countries, is its rate of population growth.   Indeed, this is what The Economist really seems to like about Australia, lauding the country’s “enthusiasm” for immigration.   Whether one looks from 1970, or just over the last quarter century or even the last decade, Australia’s rate of population growth has materially outstripped those of the other countries.   In the last 25 years, Australia’s population (UN annual numbers) increased by 41 per cent, while the population of the median of those high productivity group of six rose by 13 per cent.    The difference isn’t wholly about migration, but immigration is the bit governments make choices about.

In a country with an export base almost entirely dependent on a fixed stock of natural resources –  farm products, mineral products, tourism – and actually with foreign trade shares of GDP among the very lowest in the OECD, it is bordering on the insane to be actively importing lots and lots more people (as successive Australian governments have been doing in the last 15 years or so).     It is a quite different matter in countries –  like most advanced OECD countries now –  that are trading the fruit of ideas, or that are tightly bound into sophisticated manufacturing supply chains.  But this is Australia –  one of the most remote countries on that planet which (like New Zealand) has failed over decades to develop many outward-oriented industries that don’t depend largely on natural resources (or immigration subsidies around export education).    The fruit of the (vast) natural resources is, to a first approximation, just spread more thinly.   Being based in a global city –  the ultimate ideas trading location –  in northern Europe I guess these considerations simply never occur to The Economist’s writers, who probably enjoy the beaches and the climate when they jet into Australia without troubling themselves over whether or not the natives are actually earning leading first world incomes.  Hint: they aren’t (any longer).

And thus I end up agreeing with The Economist. 

“Even more remarkable is Australia’s enthusiasm for immigration”

Truly astonishing in fact, in the specific circumstances of Australia.  The enthusiasm of Australian governments for high immigration to Australia is just as wrongheaded –  and more culpable –  as that of The Economist’s editorial writers.  All sorts of daft ideas have had their day over history.   This one –  at least in modern Australia –  seems based more on belief and ideology than any serious evidence that Australians themselves might actually be benefiting from the immigration.

(And that without even considering the house prices, traffic congestion etc –  all of which, immigration advocates will note, could –  in principle – be fixed separately, but of course in practice aren’t. )

UPDATE: A post from a couple of months back that made similar points, but with some different data and a longer time horizon.