Decomposing the NZ economy…and Australia’s

Continuing on with updating my regular charts in light of the national accounts revisions released last month, I got to the one distinguishing (indicatively) between real growth in the tradables and non-tradables sectors of the economy.    Recall that for these purposes the primary sector (agriculture, forestry, fishing, and mining) and the manufacturing sector count as tradable, together with exports of services.  The rest of GDP is classed, loosely, as non-tradables.   As I’ve noted in an earlier post

The idea is to split out those sectors which face international competition from those that don’t.     It is no more than an indicator, and people often like to point out the components of “non-tradables” where, at least in principle, there is international competition.   But as a rough and ready indicator, it serves its purpose.   It was first developed by a visiting IMF mission about 15 years ago to help illustrate how one might think about the impact of a lift in the real exchange rate.

Here is the latest version of the chart, with both series expressed in per capita terms.

T and NT to sept 19

In per capita terms, there has been no growth at all in (this indicator of) the tradables sector since about 2002.   That is 17 years now.  The economy is increasingly concentrated in the non-tradables sector, the bits (generally) not very exposed to international competition.

One can –  people do –  quibble about adding up these components, so here is a chart of the individual components of the tradables sector measure.    It starts from mid-2002, when the tradables aggregate first got to around the current level.

T and NT components NZ to sept 19

None of these sectors has done particularly well,  The best performer –  oft-cited hope of the future –  services has averaged per capita growth of 0.6 per cent annum.  The mining sector is smaller than it was, and agriculture, forestry and fishing (taken together) has managed no per capita growth since 2012.

Perhaps there is no connection at all between this performance and developments in the real exchange rate

OECD ULC RER 2020

but I doubt many detached observers would think so.

It can get a little repetitive making the point, so this time I decided to put together –  for the first time in some years – the comparable charts for Australia.

Here is the aggregate chart for Australia

Aus T and NT to sept 19

Australia’s tradables sector had also gone more or less sideways for a while, but no longer.     Here is how the two countries’ tradables sectors look like on the same chart.

T and NT tradables

The 1990s were pretty good for the tradables sectors of both countries.  And although Australia has again been performing better in the last few years, even that growth is slower than Australia experienced in the 1990s.  As for New Zealand….well, no growth at all.

Here, for completeness, are the non-tradables sectors of the two countries.

NT components

Our non-tradables sector has been growing a bit faster than Australia’s in recent years.  That looks to be mostly because we’ve had a period of faster population growth –  rapid population growth tends to require more resources devoted to non-tradables sectors (notably construction).

nz and aus popn growth

And what about the breakdown of Australia’s tradables sector?

Aus T components

It is very different from the New Zealand picture in almost every respect.    The mining line didn’t surprise me –  it was the story I expected to be telling –  but the others did, including the continued strong growth of services exports.  Back in 2014 and 2015 it looked as though something similar was happening on both sides of the Tasman, but no longer: services exports here (per capita) have simply stagnated again.

New Zealand and Australia have both enjoyed pretty strong terms of trade in the last couple of decades (Australia’s more volatile than ours).  But over the decades, New Zealand average productivity (real GDP per hour worked) has kept dropping further behind Australia’s –  roughly 42 per cent ahead of us now, compared to about 25 per cent in 1970.   And yet OECD data suggest our real exchange rate has risen relative to Australia’s over that half-century.

aus nz RER

It isn’t that much of a rise –  around 15 per cent –  but the longer-term economic fundamentals pointed in the direction of a fall at least that large.      Policymakers here have, unwittingly (although that isn’t much of an excuse after all this time) delivered a climate –  a combination of factors –  that mean it is very difficult for the tradables sector to grow much in New Zealand.     Unless that changes it is difficult to envisage New Zealand not continuing to slip further behind, not just Australia but other advanced countries as well.

If the government were at all serious about responding to the productivity failings, these are sorts of imbalances they’d be instructing the Productivity Commission to investigate and make sense of.

The mediocre performer across the Tasman

The other day, courtesy of the Twitter feed of the chair of our own Productivity Commission, I noticed a link to a speech by the chair of the Australian Productivity Commission, Michael Brennan, under the title “Economic Knowledge and the State” given to an ANU symposium last week with the same title.   That sounded intriguing.

In truth there was less there than I hoped there might be.   It was mostly an attempt to argue that economics has been a generally positive influence on policy in Australia in recent decades and can be expected to continue to be so.  But he was a bit modest about that, partly because it can be very hard to unpick quite how much difference economic analysis and the advice of economists made, and what the counterfactual might have been.

Brennan starts with a nice illustration of the power of productivity to make a difference in material living standards.

Average incomes in Australia today are 7 times higher than they were in 1900. To give you a tangible illustration of what this means, in 1900 we estimate that it would take an average worker over 500 working hours (a couple of months) to earn enough to buy a bicycle, which was then a staple form of transport.

For an average worker in the 21st century, it would take about a day. And of course, in 1900 you couldn’t buy anti-biotics, air-conditioning or a refrigerator.

But the focus of this post was Brennan’s short discussion of Australia’s overall economic performance.

In the post war period, Australia’s per capita GDP went from being nearly $6,000 above the OECD average in 1950, to below the average in 1990.

That is partly due to the comparator — several OECD nations converged rapidly towards US living standards in the post war era.

But there is no denying that Australia’s relative fortunes have improved since 1990.

Over that 30 year period, our real per capita GDP (that is, excluding population growth and terms of trade effects) has out-performed all of the G7 economies, and our incomes have risen back to being well above the OECD average.

It was the first part of that final sentence that caught my eye.  It is true –  using the OECD’s real per capita GDP numbers, Australia’s growth since 1990 has exceeded that of all the G7 countries.  I was a little surprised to learn that the UK had been (narrowly) the best of the G7 grouping over that period.

But lets unpick that a little.

First, the OECD data themselves only go back to 1970.  At that stage there were only (from memory) 22 member countries (not including Australia or New Zealand) but the OECD has data for 1970 for 27 of the countries that are now members (most of the others were then in the communist bloc, or weren’t yet separate countries at all).

Going back further, if we use the Conference Board Total Economy database for those 27 countries we get something like the margin Mr Brennan quotes (he may have used a slightly different comparator).  In 1950, Australia’s real GDP per capita was not only higher than the OECD average, but massively so: real GDP per capita in Australia was around 50 per cent higher than that for the average OECD country.

But how about the more recent decades.   As Mr Brennan implies, there were various countries still ravaged by war in 1950 that did quite a lot of catching up subsequently.  The OECD data start from 1970, which largely deals with that particular issue.

Here are two comparisons since 1970: first, Australian real GDP per capita relative to the G7 average, and second Australia relative to the average for the 27 (now) OECD countries for which there is complete data.

aus 19 1.png

As recently as 1970, Australia had real GDP per capita almost 20 per cent above the average in this core older group of OECD countries.   Now, it is almost bang on the average.   Relative to the G7 countries there has certainly been some recovery since 1990 –  Australia really has grown faster than each of those countries –  but (a) relative to the wider OECD grouping Australia now sits about where it did at the end of the 1980s, and (b) both lines have been falling fall, at least a bit, in the last half dozen years.

(Relative to the whole OECD –  the metric Brennan quotes –  Australia’s real GDP per capita is certainly above that of the average OECD country, but given the pace of convergence of many of the former eastern bloc OECD members that margin is narrower than it was in 1995 (when the complete data for all countries is available).

All those comparisons were about real GDP per capita.  But, as I noted, Brennan’s case had been about the power of productivity growth.  And yet there were no data in the speech about Australia’s productivity performance.

Those data are even less favourable.

aus 19 2.png

Whether the comparison is to the G7 countries or to the wider group of 27 OECD countries, average labour productivity in Australia is below the median of the other advanced countries.   There has certainly been some improvement relative to the G7 countries, but even then Australia does less well than it was doing in the early 1970s.

(Relative to the full OECD, for which there is data only from 2000 onwards, Australia is a little above the median, but has managed no improvement this century to date.)

A little further on in his discussion, Brennan notes that Australia does not face the “stagnation of Japan”.   Well, maybe.  Here is a chart showing Australia’s real GDP per capita relative to that of Japan (and also relative to the US, a common comparator in Australian debate).

aus 19 3.png

1989 was the peak of the Japanese share market boom/bubble.    Australia’s productivity is no higher now, relative to that in Japan, than it was in 1989  (no higher relative to the US either).

In various posts this year I’ve used as a comparator on productivity a grouping of leading OECD countries.  Here is how Australia compares.

Aus 19 4

It would take a 25 per cent lift for Australia to match the median of that leading bunch.

And all this against the backdrop of the abundant natural resources, new waves of which Australia has been able to begin to bring to market in the last decade or so.    I don’t show Norway in these “leading group” charts but it is the other advanced OECD country really blessed by nature with natural resources, and its real GDP per hour worked is almost another 15 per cent higher than that in Belgium.  In many respects, given what it had going for it, Australia’s productivity performance has been woeful.

I reckon there is a pretty straightforward explanation –  over and above all the normal areas any country could improve policy on –  around the interaction between distance (in an era when personal connections, integrated value chains etc have often become more important not less) and the renewed determination of Australian policymakers to drive up the population more rapidly than almost anywhere in the OECD.  But when he mentions geography is his speech, Mr Brennan refers only to the

mysterious but very real spill-over effects of agglomeration, particularly in large, dense cities.

perhaps not aware that, unlike the situation in typical (non natural resource dependent) OECD countries, in Australia real GDP per capita in the big cities –  Sydney and Melbourne –  barely matches that for the country as a whole.

Of course, writing from this side of the Tasman it behooves me to point out that New Zealand’s economic performance has been consistently materially poorer even than that of Australia, that the ability of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders to move to Australia has helped many New Zealanders……and that Australia continues to have a consistently better cricket team.

But were I Australian I’d be a little uneasy at just how relatively poorly my economy had done, and is still doing, on the counts that matter –  productivity –  especially when the economy had been able to ride a mineral investment/export wave in a way open to few other OECD countries.  And I might be asking questions about the quality of the economic analysis and advice from leading official institutions.

 

Saving: New Zealand and Australia compared

In a post earlier this week looking at national saving rates across the OECD, I included this chart

net savings aus nz

For the last few years, national saving rates in New Zealand have been higher than those in Australia.  That isn’t the popular perception, and it hasn’t been common in the past –  although for now, the gaps are no larger or more persistent than those recorded for a few years in the 00s.

Before digging behind the numbers, at least a bit, a reminder:

  • these are flow saving rates we are looking at here (the share of the year’s net income accruing to residents of the country in question that is not consumed).   In the case of business savings, the concept is akin to retained earnings from the profits for the year in question
  • I am not looking at stock measures of accumulated wealth, financial assets or anything of the sort.

We can break down these saving rates for each country and see what has been happening in each of the broad sectors: households, governments, and business.   All the charts below are expressed as a share of NNI (rather than of the income of that particular sector).  In each of the charts below, New Zealand data are for March years and Australian data for June years.

First, lets have a look at general government savings

govt s

Every year but one the government savings rate (share of NNI) in New Zealand has been higher than that in Australia.

And that is so even though, diverting briefly to stock numbers, in every single year for which we have data, general government net financial liabilites (loosely, net debt) is larger, as a share of GDP/NNI, in New Zealand than in Australia.  There are probably two main factors at work: first, the size of government here is larger, as a share of the total economy, than in Australia, and second, New Zealand tends to have a relatively large amount of government investment (GFCF) as a share of GDP.

What about households?

Probably to no one’s surprise

household s 2.png

In all but one year, household (net) saving in Australia has been higher, as a per cent of NNI, than that in New Zealand.  The size of the gap between the two series hasn’t changed much over time, and there is little sign that the gap now is consistently larger than it was 30 years ago before the compulsory private savings scheme was introduced in Australia.  Both countries have had fairly rapid rates of population growth over these decades –  although the growth has been concentrated in different periods.  Over long periods of time, you’d expect a country with rapid population growth to have a higher household savings rate than one that doesn’t.   What is, perhaps, interesting about the Australian series is how far the household savings rate has dropped back again in the last few years.

And what about the business saving rate?  In aggregate the picture looks like this

business s.png

For the first decade or so of the data things are much as you’d expect.  Business saving in Australia averaged a bit higher than that in New Zealand, consistent with the fact that business investment rates tend to be higher (partly reflecting the Australian economy concentrating in quite capital intensive sector).  You can, loosely, see some cyclical effects: profits tend to fall away quite sharply in recessions and so, typically, will business savings rates.

But once one gets to this century things become harder to make sense of.  And the Australia numbers seem easier to make sense of than the New Zealand ones: in Australia as the terms of trade surged and huge new mining sector investment opportunities opened up you’d expect firms to be using higher profits and higher retained earnings to finance part of the huge surge in mining investment.  The Australian terms of trade peaked in 2011 and is much lower now.  Mining sector investment is also well past its peak.  Still, I was a bit surprised to see that overall business saving rates are now lower than they were, on average, in the 15 or so years before the terms of trade boom.

But what of New Zealand?  Why did business saving rates surge at the very start of the 00s, and then fall away so sharply –  the amplitude of that fluctuation is larger than for Australia more recently.  Some of it probably had to do with the exchange rate –  which reached a deep trough in 2000 at a time when commodity prices were high.  But it doesn’t really seem like a sufficient explanation.  And that trough was in the year to March 2007, more than a year before the recession really hit.

Despite my inclinations to look on the gloomy side, I’d almost be inclined to think positively about the recent rise in business savings rates –  higher now than they were at any other time in the 1990s –  except that there is little or no sign that these higher saving rates reflect any sense of an abundance of investment opportunities.  Business saving rates in New Zealand may well now be being boosted by the pressure on dairy farmers to use whatever earnings they can generate to pay down debt.

We can use official data to look a little further behind the business saving story, splitting the business saving rate into financial businesses and other businesses. I’m not sure why one would want to –  they are all businesses after all – but as it happened there are some interesting, but puzzling, differences uncovered by doing so.  Note that for New Zealand the data are not yet available for the March 2019 year.  And the New Zealand data are available only for the last 20 years.

Here is financial sector (net) saving

fin.png

and here is the non-financial business sector

non-fin.png

I just don’t know what to make of the earlier years: why would NZ financial sector saving (retained earnings) be so much lower than that in Australia, at precisely the same time non-financial sector business saving was materially higher.  Something doesn’t look quite right (but perhaps it is, and I’d be happy to have any authoritative explanations).

More recently, this decade, the financial sector savings rates have been very similar on both sides of the Tasman: rather what one might expect given that the biggest players here (banks) are also big Australian banks.  But if that is plausible and roughly right, it leaves the business saving rate in the rest of the business sector quite a bit higher here than in Australia.   Which is interesting, and not necessarily what I would have guessed without checking.

I don’t purport to have any particular insights to offer on quite what has been going on.   Digging any deeper would probably require more resources and data that I don’t have.  But it is interesting that the relationship between New Zealand government savings and Australian government saving, and New Zealand and Australian household saving, have been pretty stable for a long time.  The puzzles seem to rest in the business sector data, and unfortunately business saving is quite routinely overlooked when people talk,or think, about saving behaviour in New Zealand.   A Treasury, Reserve Bank or Productivity Commission note might be able to shed more light on developments that we probably should understand better than (at very least) I do.

 

Rygbi

My 12 year old daughter has been teaching herself Welsh –  a recent birthday present was a good Welsh-English dictionary – we’ve recently been watching a rather bleak Welsh detective series together, and this year she has also become (unlike her father) a bit of a rugby (“rygbi” in Welsh apparently) fanatic so I promised her that if Wales made the World Cup semi-finals I’d do a Welsh-themed post.  That’s economics rather than rugby though.

One of the themes of much modern economics literature is things about cities, location, agglomeration, distance and so on.  According to Eurostat data, London has the one of the very highest GDPs per capita of any region in the EU¹.  The two largest cities in Wales –  Cardiff and Swansea –  are each less than 200 miles from London.  And yet estimated GDP per capita in Wales is only about 40 per cent of that in London and 75 per cent of that in the EU as a whole (71 per cent of the UK as a whole).  Productivity in Wales (GDP per hour worked) might be about that of New Zealand.

And yet Wales has much the same policy regime as London.  Much the same regulatory environment, same income, consumption, and company tax rates, same currency (and interest rates and banks), same external trade regime, same national government (and as I understand it the Welsh regional administration doesn’t have control of very much), and the same immigration regime.  Most of the people are native English speakers (even many of those who also speak Welsh).

Huge populations are free to move to Wales.  There are 66 million people in the UK who face no regulatory obstacles to doing so.  They could set up firms in Wales.  So –  for the moment –  could people in most of the EU, and all legal migrants to the United Kingdom (with no particular ties to any other UK region) could move to Wales.  It isn’t open borders but in practical terms it is much closer to it than almost any sovereign state.

And yet……by and large they don’t.  The population of Wales today is only 50 per cent larger than it was in 1900 and only about 5 per cent of the population is born outside the British Isles.  Here is the share of Wales in the total population of the Great Britain.

wales 1

Wales used to have things going for it: plenty of room for sheep (wool and meat were two of our big exports to the urban population of the UK), the world’s largest slate industry,  and coal (lots of it) and the associated iron and steel (the latter booming from the start of the 20th century) industries.

But not, it appears, very much at all these days.   There is some tourism, some electricity exports (to the rest of Britain) and, of course, a variety of other industries.  It all generates tolerable living standards. albeit supported by significant inward fiscal transfers.  Unemployment is low, and (by New Zealand or London standards) house prices are fairly low –  Swansea (second biggest city) has median house prices around $350000.  But people in the rest of the UK, migrants to the UK, and –  importantly – actual/potential entrepreneurs don’t seem to find it terribly attractive.  Perhaps it would be different if it were an independent country –  the Irish company tax regime is apparently eyed up by some. But as it isn’t, one gets a cleaner read on the pure economic geography effects.

It is interesting to wonder what might have happened to Wales if it were an independent country and, all else equal, had had control of its own immigration policy.  What if they’d adopted a Canadian or New Zealand immigration policy –  or something even more liberal –  20 years ago?   Since there are plenty of places in the world much poorer than Wales (or New Zealand), and Wales itself is a small place, presumably they’d have had no trouble attracting people –  at least modestly qualified people from places poorer, or less safe, again: China, India, South Africa, the Philippines (to name just four significant source countries for New Zealand).   Even if many of the migrants initially saw Wales as backdoor entry to England, if New Zealand’s experience is anything to go by (become a citizen here and you can immediately move to much wealthier Australia) most wouldn’t.  Presumably the Welsh building sector would have been a lot bigger, but it isn’t obvious that many more outward-oriented businesses would have chosen Cardiff or Swansea over London or Paris or Amsterdam, even with the rest of Europe more or less on the doorstep.

Tasmania is another interesting example.  Like Wales, it shares essentially the same  policy regime (taxes, currency, external trade, most regulation) with the sovereign country it is a part of, in this case Australia.  There is unrestricted mobility for people within Australia, and external migrants –  including those from New Zealand –  can as readily settle in Tasmania as anywhere else in Australia. Hobart always looks like a really nice place.

Oh, and the population share of the total country is also small.  But the fall in the population share has been much sharper than for Wales.

wales 2

People –  and firms –  could choose to go to Tasmania but, by and large, they choose not to.  It is, after all, quite a way from Melbourne, and you can neither drive nor take a fairly-speedy train.   And unlike Wales, Tasmania is close to nothing else: Cardiff is much to closer to Dublin, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam or even Frankfurt than Hobart is to Adelaide or Sydney.  Perhaps even more than Wales, the economic opportunities seem to be mostly in the natural resources (and no big new developments there in recent decades) and a few niche industries that might be there because the founder happens to like living there.   GDP per capita in Tasmania is just under 80 per cent of the whole of Australia average.

One could also do an interesting thought experiment as to what might have happened if Tasmania had been an independent country and had its own immigration policy.  Even had they just adopted the same policy as Australia did, almost certainly their population today would be materially larger than it now is (Tasmania now has three times the population it had in 1900, while Australia as a whole has more like seven times the 1900 population).  Being even smaller than Wales they’d have had no trouble attracting people.   But –  even more so than for Wales –  you are left wondering how many more outward-oriented businesses would have chosen to stay based in little Tasmania (few enough outward-oriented businesses are based in even the big Australian cities).

Are there lessons for New Zealand.  Our population has increased almost sixfold since 1900. In that time, we’ve fallen from (roughly) the highest GDP per capita anywhere to somewhere badly trailing the OECD field –  and maintaining even that standing only by work long hours per capita.

wales 3

It looks great to the strain of “big New Zealand” thought that has been around since Vogel at least.  But to what end, for New Zealanders?

Think of one last thought experiment.  What say we’d agreed a completely common immigration policy with Australia and held that in place for the last few decades?  More or less exactly the same number of people would probably have come to Australasia in total, but what do we supposed would have been the split between Australia and New Zealand.   It seems only reasonable to assume that a much larger proportion would have gone to Australia (than did).  After all, even those who went to Australia had a choice of Tasmania if they wanted cooler climes and a slightly slower pace –  but, to a very large extent they didn’t.  And we know what New Zealanders themselves –  who had ties to this physical places –  were choosing over the last 50 years, as hundreds of thousands left for the other side of Tasman.

And had that happened –  and perhaps New Zealand’s population was 3 million not almost 5 million –  is it likely that any fewer market-driven outward-oriented businesses would be based here than are today.   The land, the water, the minerals and the scenery would all still be there.  And how much else is there?

As a best guess, if by some exogenous policy intervention there had been another two million people –  of moderate skills etc – put in Wales, or another half million in Tasmania, it is difficult to have any confidence that average real incomes in either place would be any larger than they are now.  Most probably, they’d be worse off –  as say, the residents of Taihape probably would be if some exogenous intervention put another 5000 people there.  Having put an extra couple of million people in New Zealand – more remote than Tasmania, much more remote than Wales –  and not seen the outward-oriented industries, based on anything other than natural resources growing – we might reasonably assume we (New Zealanders) are poorer as a result.

Smart people are almost always a prerequisite to high incomes, but globally the top tier of incomes seems to focused on industries located in or near big cities, near big population concentrations, or on (finite) natural resources.   You can earn a very standard of living from finite natural resources –  it is the edge Norway has over the rest of Europe – but it looks pretty insane to confuse the two types of economies (when you have no realistic hope of transitioning from one to the other) and spread natural resource based wealth much more thinly by using policy to actively encourage rapid population growth.

From a narrow economic perspective –  and it isn’t of course, the only one the matters – the best thing for people from a lagging economic performance area is to leave.  It is what people did from Taihape or Invercargill, from Ireland for many decades, and (more recently and on a really large scale) what people did from New Zealand as a whole.   Governments can mess up that picture. In a way the Welsh are fortunate to have a rugby team but not an immigration policy, at least had they had the misfortune to have had policymakers like New Zealand’s.

 

  1.  Technically Luxembourg tops the table, but since a very large chunk of Luxembourg’s workforce doesn’t live there the numbers aren’t particularly meaningful (sensible comparisons need to take account of all the  – typical modest-earning –  support services populations need/use where they live).

Productivity (lack of it) and other things

When I was writing some comments last week on Reserve Bank Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand’s speech in Australia I was playing round with some comparative data and stumbled on this chart.

nzau 1

Over the entire period (since 1991) real GDP per capita has grown at exactly the same rate in Australia and New Zealand.   And I haven’t even cherrypicked the starting point: my chart starts when the SNZ quarterly GDP per capita series starts.

Of course, even in 1991 we were materially less well off than Australians, but should we take some comfort from having kept pace over now almost 30 years?  I’d say not.

Here’s why.   Look at the employment rates in the two countries

nzau2

You might be among those who think the more employment the better but (a) working is a cost (an input) to the employee and (b) wouldn’t it have been much preferable, even if you think higher employment rates are some great thing, for it to have resulted in more growth in average per capita income than in the country where employment rates didn’t increase as much?   Australia’s unemployment rate is a bit higher than ours, and that is a mark against them, but it is only a small part of the difference in the employment rates.

And here is a chart that is perhaps even more stark.

NZau3

Across the whole population, the average Australian is now working 5 per cent more hours than in 1991, while the average New Zealander is working 22 per cent more hours.

And yet the bottom line, growth in average real output per capita, is the same.

The difference is productivity – or, more specifically, in our case the lack of anywhere near enough productivity growth.

I’ve got other things on today, so that is it for original content.  But earlier this morning I was rereading my submission to the Reserve Bank consultation on the Governor’s plans to require large increases in bank capital.   There wasn’t anything in it I would now resile from.  I also skimmed through former colleague, and expert in bank capital modelling, Ian Harrison’s papers (here and here) and I doubt he would resile from anything in there.

But what remains striking is how little engagement there has been from the Governor on his proposals.    He has only given four on-the-record speeches this year, not one of which has involved a serious sustained attempt to make his case, let alone engage with alternative perspectives.  The only attempts I’ve seen to respond to alternative perspectives seem to simply involve suggesting that anyone who disagrees with him is somehow bought and paid for, and therefore their views aren’t worthy of serious notice or scrutiny.

At one level, it shouldn’t be surprising, given Orr’s personality and intolerance of challenge or disagreement –  and the fact that, formally at least, he doesn’t have to convince anyone but himself (since he is prosecutor, judge, and jury in his own case, and there are no rights of appeal). But as matter of good governance, in a democratic society, it reflects very poorly on him, on his handpicked senior managers, and on the Bank’s Board and Minister of Finance who are paid to hold the Governor to account but in fact act as if there role is to simply get out of the way and let the Governor get on with it, poor as the process and substance have been, poor as Governor’s conduct increasingly seems to have been.

And so I’ll leave you with some of the unanswered points from my submission

An unbiased observer, looking at the New Zealand economy and financial system, would struggle to find a case for higher minimum capital ratios.   Among the factors such an observer might consider would be:

• The fact that the New Zealand financial system has not experienced a systemic financial crisis for more than hundred years (and to the extent it approximated one in the late 1980s, that was in the idiosyncratic circumstances of an extensive and fast financial liberalisation which left neither market participants nor regulators particularly well-equipped),

• Our major banks – the only ones that might pose any serious economywide risks – come from a country with very much the same historical record as New Zealand,

• Despite very rapid credit growth in the years prior to 2008 (increases in the credit to GDP ratios among the larger in the advanced world, spread across housing, farm, and other business/property lending), and a severe recession in 2008/09 and afterwards, the banking system emerged with low loan losses,

• Since then, banks have not only increased their actual capital ratios (and been required to calculate farm risk-weighted assets more stringently) but have also substantially improved their funding and liquidity positions (under some mix of regulatory and market pressure).

• Over the decade, bank credit growth (relative to GDP) has been pretty subdued and there has been little or no evidence (in, for example, Reserve Bank FSRs) of any serious degradation of lending standards.

• The balance sheets of the large banks remain relatively simple, and there has been no sign (per FSRs) of the sort of financial innovation that might raise significant doubts about the adequacy of existing models.

• In terms of the wider policy environment, government fiscal policy remains very strong, we continue to have a freely-floating exchange rate, and there has been neither legislation nor judicial rulings that will have materially impaired the ability of banks to realise collateral.

• And the Open Bank Resolution option for bank resolution has been more firmly established in the official toolkit (note that if OBR were fully credible then, in the absence of deposit insurance, there would be little case for regulatory minimum capital requirements at all).

• And repeated stress tests –  over a period when the regulator had no incentive to skew the tests to show favourable results –  suggested that even if exposed to extremely severe adverse macro shocks, and associated large price adjustments for houses, farms, and commercial property, not only would no bank fail, but no bank would even drop below current minimum capital requirements.

• Consistent with this experience – also observed in Australia, the home jurisdiction of the parents of our major banks – the major banks operating here continue to have strong credit ratings (consistent with a very low probability of default), and the ratings of the parent banks are even higher.

• There has been no change in the ownership structure of our major banks, or in the implied willingness of the Australian authorities to support the (systemically significant) parents of the New Zealand banks were they ever to get into difficulty.

Add into the mix indications that New Zealand banks CET1 ratios, if calculated on a properly comparable basis, would already be among the highest in the advanced world –  in a macro environment with more scope for stabilisation (floating exchange rate, strong fiscal position, little unhedged foreign currency lending) than in many advanced countries –  and there would be a fairly strong prima facie case for leaving things much as they are.

But the Reserve Bank’s consultative document – and associated material, including speeches and interviews – engages substantively with almost none of this context.

And

It is grossly unsatisfactory that throughout months of consultation the Bank has made no effort to illustrate how its proposals for minimum CET1 ratios and the associated floors around the calculation of risk-weighted assets, compare with those planned by APRA for the Australian banks.

Such an exercise should have been relatively straightforward, especially if the Reserve Bank had done what most New Zealanders might reasonably have expected, and worked closely together with APRA in formulating its proposals.  Of course, New Zealand is a sovereign nation and the Reserve Bank (regrettably) has final decision-making powers in New Zealand but:

• APRA has a considerably deeper pool of expertise, including at the top of the organisation, than the Reserve Bank of New Zealand,

• The nature of the risks in the two economies and markets is quite similar (including similar legal institutions, and similar housing markets),

• If anything there is a case for thinking that APRA minima would be ceilings below which New Zealand requirements for our large banks should be set (since we have the benefit of strong parent banks, and well-regarded supervisor of those banks, whereas the parents  – and parents’ supervisors – themselves are on their own, and we have also chosen to have the OBR as a frontline resolution option),

• For the institutions that might pose potential systemic issues in New Zealand, any substantial increase in capital requirements can reasonably be seen as an attempt to grab group capital for New Zealand.  Why not work these things out together?

The onus should, surely, be on the Reserve Bank of New Zealand to demonstrate – make the case in detail – why the New Zealand subsidiaries of Australian banks should be subject to more onerous capital requirements than the parents, and banking groups as a whole, are subject to.  But not once has the Reserve Bank attempted to make that case.

I ended

New Zealanders deserve better than they have had in the poor process and weak substance that together made up this consultation.

To which one can only add that the repeated reports  –  some of things in public, others less so –  of the way the Governor has handled himself, his own conduct, through this episode are deeply disquieting.  There is little sign of the sort of character and temperament we should expect from a senior public servant exercise so much barely-trammelled power.  The Minister of Finance may declare that he has full confidence in the Governor.  The public should not, and if the Minister continues to sit on the sidelines doing nothing but expressing full confidence that should probably raise more questions about the Minister himself.

Meanwhile, one wonders what our new Australian Secretary to the Treasury makes of her first encounters with national policymaking and advice.

New Zealand and Australia

Yesterday’s post unpicked some of Reserve Bank Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand’s speech in Sydney earlier this week.  As I noted, the goal of the speech seemed to be to leave readers with a sense that there really were good grounds for New Zealand to impose materially more onerous core capital ratios on locally-incorporated banks (recall that none of these requirements apply to any other lenders, banks or otherwise) than those imposed in Australia.   The gist of the case was, we were told

Our conservatism, relative to Australia, in our bank capital proposals reflects the higher macroeconomic volatility that we have endured, as I pointed out earlier.

Even over the nearly 30 years Bascand asked us to focus on, this wasn’t a very convincing argument.

As I pondered further the claim that New Zealand was exposed to materially more macroeconomic volality than Australia –  and the differences have to be “material” to support the material differences in proposed core capital requirements –  and conscious of the huge and wrenching Australian crisis of the 1890s, I’d just decided to look at a rather longer run of data when a reader, an academic economist, sent me an email making exactly the same point, and conveniently drawing my attention to this chart (from the Phil Briggs NZIER compilation of charts and text in New Zealand economic history).

briggs.png

It uses smoothed data because the estimates for the earlier decades, for both countries, are incredibly noisy.

But, if anything, over that 150 years, the Australian experience was more volatile than that of New Zealand.    Their financial crisis was much more severe than ours in the 1890s, and their experience of the Great Depression (including in the financial sector) is generally regarded as having been worse than ours, as examples.

You’ll recall that the Governor has chosen to attempt to calibrate his capital requirements so that, in principle, New Zealand experiences a financial (banking) crisis no more than once in 200 years.  We don’t have 200 years (of data, or experience) for New Zealand –  although the Australian data start from 1820 –  but if you want to mount arguments that we are (and will be) exposed to materially higher macro volatility than another country, it surely is only reasonable to look at as long a history of those two countries as one can reasonably get.  Unless, that is, one is using statistics/history for support –  for the boss’s whims –  rather than for illumination.

One can always discount history –  this, that or the other thing will always have been different, even if human nature isn’t –  but to mount a major policy case on a carefully chosen subset of history seems more akin to propaganda than to good policy process.

Or here is another chart.  Bascand included in his speech a chart on New Zealand GDP since 1965.   Here are the unemployment rates for the two countries since 1966 –  the official Australia data starts then and our series was backdated (from when the HLFS started in 1986) by Simon Chapple.  Not 200 years of data, but more than 50.

U rates long-term

Do those look like two economies prone to materially differing degrees of macroeconomic volaility?  If anything, Australia might have been a bit more volatile (over this particular period).  Peak unemployment rates in Australia in the Great Depression also appear to have been higher than those in New Zealand.

But I don’t want to mount an argument that Australia is more exposed to macroeconomic volatility than New Zealand is.   If anything, rather the contrary.  Over long periods, New Zealand and Australia have been two of the more similar countries on earth.  The modern countries emerged at much the same time, for almost all their histories they’ve had much the same exchange rate regimes, they’ve had strongly overlapping banking systems, they’ve been heavily dependent on foreign capital (especially in the development phase), they liberalised again at much the same time, they both run public debt sky high at much the same times, they both turned fairly inwards for a time, they’ve had pretty similar migration policies, they’ve mostly had very similar terms of trade cycles, and they’ve both had the rule of law (and similar legal systems) and democratic government throughout their modern histories.  They’ve been tolerably well-governed, tolerably successful in economic terms (Australia more than us in recent decades), with a high degree of financial stability in both countries for now well over 100 years –  with the sole exception of the brief period of shared craziness immediately after the 1980s liberalisation when no one (regulators, lenders or borrowers) really knew quite what they were doing.

2025 TOT

So if Adrian Orr and Geoff Bascand really want to mount a case for putting much more onerous capital requirements on in New Zealand than in Australia, it is simply absurd and untenable to  mount it on the basis of some intrinsic greater level of economic risk in New Zealand than in Australia.  It hasn’t been so in history, and they’ve not even sought to advance an argument for why it might be so in future.

Perhaps the Australians really have it wrong and superior wisdom rests with Messrs Orr and Bascand.  But, frankly, it seems unlikely.  Not only are the key Australian officials much more experienced in these matters than ours, and they have the additional worry that there is no prospect of parental support for their banks, but it is the New Zealand proposals which appear to put us out of line with (above) international benchmarks, despite the impressive long-term track record of financial stability here, the floating exchange rate regime, and a now well-established history of keeping governments out of credit allocation.

More generally, in banking systems that have so much in common, in economies with so much in common, surely we should have looked to our authorities to have worked closely with the Australians to have developed as common a regime as possible, recognising (inter alia) that if and when anything really goes wrong with any of the big 4 the problems will be trans-Tasman in nature and are likely to be resolved –  and be best resolved –  at a trans-Tasman political level.    I’m not suggesting Australian officials and politicians have our best interests at heart.  Both sides need to look after their own national interests, but those interests can be protected –  probably better protected –  by working closely together, on as common a framework as possibly, consistent with maintaining/pursuing an unquestionably strong banking and financial system.

As for New Zealand citizens and voters, we really should be demanding much higher standards from our top central bankers, who seem unable or unwilling to answer simple questions and challenges about what the Governor is proposing, or to do so in ways that are straightforward and reasonably defensible  That really should worry Grant Robertson, who is responsible for these men and for the institution.

How unusual is Australia’s record without “recessions”?

Over the weekend a reader posted a link to a blog post by a couple of researchers at the St Louis Fed.  People often point out –  sometimes to boast (if you are an Australian politician), sometimes just out of curiosity –  that Australia has gone 28 years with “a recession”, where “recession” here is defined by that convenient (not overly helpful) benchmark of two successive quarterly falls in the level of real GDP,

As a definition of recession it seems to serve mostly because there is no better definition in general use. In the US, there is the NBER business cycle dating committee, which draws on a range of different indicators to reach a judgemental determination of the dates of recession, but those dates are typically only available with a lag, and there isn’t anything similar in most other countries (including New Zealand).

The rather obvious, but all too frequently forgotten, point that the St Louis Fed observers are making is that any sensible interpretation of GDP growth has to take account of the rate of population growth.  There are countries in eastern Europe where the fall in population has been large enough that one could see GDP falling every quarter and yet the average citizen would still their per capita GDP rising.  Even setting aside that extreme, there is a big difference between, say, Germany (with almost no population growth this century, Japan which has had a slight fall in its population in the last five years, and New Zealand with population growth in excess of 10 per cent over the same period.     Australia is another advanced country with rapid average population growth.

As the St Louis Fed researchers point out, once you focus on per capita real GDP the chart for Australia looks a bit different

st louis fed 1

On the “two consecutive negative quarter” rule, Australia would have had three (fairly mild) ‘recessions’ in the period since the end of the early 1990s recession.

In case you are wondering, New Zealand (using the average of our two GDP measures) would also have had three “recessions” (rather more severe) on this per capita metric: 1997/98, 2008/09, and 2010.

It is still fair to note that even on a per capita basis, Australia did not have a recession in real GDP in 2008/09.  As far as I can see that makes it the only OECD country to have avoided two consecutive quarterly falls in real per capita GDP over that period.

But (as the NBER business cycle dating methodology recognises) simply looking at GDP isn’t a particular sensible basis for assessing whether (more broadly) things are going backwards.  Personally, I find looking at the unemployment rate quite useful.   All else equal, if the unemployment rate rises the economy is generating fewer new jobs than the increase in the number of people ready and willing to work.  As with any measure there is some month to month and quarter to quarter “noise” (often just measurement challenges), but if the unemployment has been rising for a couple of quarters (especially in a climate where the long-term trend is downwards) that too is probably a suggestion of an economy going backwards where it counts.

Here is the quarterly series for Australia’s unemployment rate back to the early 1990s.

Aus U to sept 19

Over that period there were seven episodes where the unemployment rate rose for two or more consecutive quarters.  Most of the increases were small, but there were three episodes where the increase was 1 percentage point or more.

Over the same period, New Zealand had four episodes where the unemployment rate rose for two or more consecutive quarters, two of them by a percentage point or more.  The UK and the USA had three and two episodes respectively –  including the very sharp increase in the US unemployment rate at the time of the 2008/09 recession.

It isn’t even as if the extent of the rise in the unemployment rate in Australia over 2008/09/10 was unusually small.  Australia’s unemployment rose less than in the other Anglo countries, but on OECD numbers there were about 10 European countries where the unemployment rate rose by a similar amount (mostly) or even less than in Australia.

Another variable I find worth looking at for Australia is a measure of real income that takes account of terms of trade fluctuations (for commodity exporters much of any adverse shocks show up in price rather than volume, whereas for manufactures and services exporters the balance is the other way round).

This is a chart of real net national disposable income per capita series, produced by the ABS.

RNNDI to 19

It really quite a startling record of steady growth in this series from about 1993 to about 2008.  But the period since then has been quite different (a point that various of the more downbeat domestic Australian commentators often point out – real Australian incomes have not been doing well).  There have been seven periods since 2008 when RNNDI per capita has fallen for two or more consecutive quarters.    Somewhat to my surprise, when I looked at the closest New Zealand series there had only been two such falls since the early 1990s.   The fall in Australia’s per capita RNNDI over 2008/09 was a actually larger than the fall in New Zealand’s per capita real GDI measure.

The St Louis Fed researchers ended their post this way

So should we use Australia as a benchmark when thinking about possible duration of expansions? If so, we have to take it with a grain of salt because looking at just GDP growth doesn’t paint the whole picture. It is important to look at per capita GDP growth to have a broader view.

Their goal wasn’t to bag Australia but to put its experience in some perspective, specifically the importance of taking account of population growth trends when looking at GDP numbers and headline about presence or absence of GDP “recessions”.

This post is in much the same spirit.   I really like Australia and can’t stand the “chip on our shoulder” too many New Zealanders seem to have about the place.  It is different from most other OECD countries –  heavy resource dependence does that, as does rapid population growth – and that needs to be taken into account in comparing cyclical economic performance.      Through some mix of good luck and good management –  mostly the latter in my view (including choices around a floating exchange rate, low and stable public debt, and keeping the state out of the housing finance market) Australia has avoided anything like the worst downturns (whether per capita GDP or unemployment) seen in some other OECD countries (eg the US and –  even more savagely – a number of euro-area economies).  But it is a normal economy, it has upswings and downswings: if no one else the unemployed (and the underemployed) know it (relative to, say, the end of 2007, the median OECD economy now has an unemployment little changed from then, while Australia’s unemployment rate is almost 1 percentage point higher than it was then).

Incidentally, and while on the topic of per capita GDP growth, I had a look at the latest annual growth rates for New Zealand and the 30+ countries for which the OECD has data.  Despite all the talk  –  including from the PM –  about New Zealand doing better than its peers, our real per capita GDP growth in the year to the June quarter (or four quarters on four quarters) was just lower than the median country in the sample (and quite a bit below the unweighted averages of those countries).  Better than Australia over that year (see the first chart) but then –  as this post and the St Louis Fed one help illustrate –  Australia is no stellar performer.