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.

 

The shift from services to goods in NZ international trade

I wrote the other day about the woeful underperformance of our tradables sector, suggesting that it was past time for the Minister of Finance and the Secretary to the Treasury to actually engage with, and respond to, the underperformance.

Instead, this morning I stumbled on a speech given the other day by the Secretary to the Treasury that, in this regard, is not much better than just making stuff up.   The address was to an outfit called the New Zealand India Trade Alliance.   I’m sure there is lots of worthy detailed stuff in it, but my eye fell on this line

New Zealand is taking a more productive and effective path. We recognise the importance of continuing to focus on building a resilient workforce with flexible skills, and that we should expect and enable the economy to adapt to change as it happens.

One of the most positive changes for New Zealand has been digitalisation. It has thrown open opportunities to sell services and deliver them to other countries in a fraction of a second, in addition to selling goods delivered in days or weeks.

This shift in trade from physical goods to services is very evident in the trade between New Zealand and India.

It wasn’t a speech I’d normally have read, but this line –  the “shift in trade from physical goods to services” –  had been highlighted in a tweet retweeted by the (able and respected) MFAT Deputy Secretary responsible for trade negotiations etc.

It appears to be true in respect of the (fairly small) trade between India and New Zealand (Makhlouf quotes some numbers).  But it just isn’t happening for the New Zealand economy as a whole.  In this chart, I’ve shown two lines: for the whole country, exports of services as a share of total exports and exports of services as a share of GDP.

services X mar 19

Services exports now (from New Zealand) are about the same share of total exports as they were 20 years ago.  And, consistent with the fact that total exports as a share of GDP has shrunk over that time, so has total services exports as a share of GDP.

And, as I noted in the post the other day, this is although we are heavily subsidising some parts of services exports –  the film industry notably, but also the export education sector (by bundling work rights, residence points etc together with the sale of education services, an issue that may have been of some salience for services exports to India).

How can we hope to see half-decent analysis and policy advice from the government’s (self-described) lead economic adviser, when the Secretary to the Treasury won’t even face basic facts?  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with goods exports –  in a successful economy we’d probably have more exports (and imports) of both goods and services – but there simply is no aggregate New Zealand shift from good exports to services occurring.

I’m not a mercantilist, and it is important to look at the imports side as well.  Perhaps the Secretary really had in mind imports of services?  But that doesn’t help either.

services M 2

Almost 42 years, and no shift from physical imports to services imports at all.

 

HYEFU bits and pieces

This is getting to be a bit of a half-yearly ritual, but politicians’ words are one thing, and the best professional judgements of our Treasury forecasters are another.   The latter aren’t necessarily very accurate at all, but as their website blares

The Treasury is New Zealand’s lead advisor to the Government on economic and financial policy

Heaven help New Zealand you might think, given that both Treasury and the government seem lost in the nebulous alternative reality of the living standards framework, wellbeing budgets, and a grab bag of alternative indicators that may –  or may not –  matter to anyone much other than them.

But they are the official advisors, charged by law with producing independent forecasts twice a year.   And the forecasts I’ve been particularly interested in for a while have been those for the export (and import) share of GDP.  The previous government, somewhat unwisely set themselves numerical targets for the export share of GDP –  reality bore no relationship to the targets.  The current government avoided that particular mistake, but senior ministers –  all the way up to the Minister of Finance and the Prime Minister –  talk regularly about rebalancing the economy and gettings the signals right in ways that lead to more exports and higher productivity.

But here are the numbers, for exports as a share of GDP, from last week’s economic and fiscal update.

exports hyefu 18

You can read the earlier decades in various ways.   If you wanted to be particularly negative you could note that we got to an export share of GDP in 1980 which we haven’t sustainably exceeded since then.  But if you were of a more charitable disposition you might suggest that, broadly speaking, things were still getting better until about 2001 (although you shouldn’t put much weight on that peak –  it was an unusual combination of a year of a very weak exchange rate and very high dairy prices).  But this century hasn’t been good, and this decade has been bad.

As a reminder it isn’t that exports are in some sense special, but that successful economies typically have plenty of growing firms that are producing goods and services that are making inroads in the very big market of the rest of world.  That, in turn, enables us to enjoy for of what the rest of the world produces.   For small economies in particular, exports are typically a very important marker.

If you were of a generous disposition you might note that a temporary dip in the export share of GDP might not have been unexpected, or even inappropriate, for much of this decade.  After all, the Canterbury earthquakes meant that resources had to be diverted to repairs and rebuilding, and resources used for one thing can’t be used for other things.  The exchange rate is part of the reallocative mechanism.  And the unexpected surge in the population, as a result of high net immigration (a good chunk of it changing behaviour of New Zealanders), arguably had the same sort of effect.

But the largest effects of the earthquake are now well behind us, and even net immigration inflows are also dropping back.   And yet the Treasury forecasts –  the orange line in the chart –  show no sustained rebound in forecast export performance at all.   In fact, by the final forecast year (to June 2023) the export share of GDP will be so low than only one year in the previous thirty will have been lower.  Not only is there no sign of a structural improvement –  a step change that might one day see New Zealand exports matching or exceeding turn of the century levels –  there isn’t even a reversal of the decline this decade, which might plausibly be attributable to unavoidable pressures (eg the earthquakes).

For anyone concerned about the long-term performance of the New Zealand economy –  which appears to exclude our political officeholders, who could actually do something about it, but choose not to –  it is a pretty dismal picture.  Something like the current level of the real exchange rate seems to be Treasury’s “new normal”, and absent huge positive productivity shocks that is a recipe for continued structural underperformance.

Still on the HYEFU, I’ve long been intrigued by the Labour-Greens pre-election budget responsibility commitment around government spending (which continues to guide fiscal policy).

Rule 4: The Government will take a prudent approach to ensure expenditure is phased, controlled, and directed to maximise its benefits. The Government will maintain its expenditure to within the recent historical range of spending to GDP ratio.

During the global financial crisis Core Crown spending rose to 34% of GDP. However, for the last 20 years, Core Crown spending has been around 30% of GDP and we will manage our expenditure carefully to continue this trend.

As someone who thinks that there is plenty the government spends money on that just isn’t needed (and eliminating which would, in turn, leave room for some of the areas where more spending probably is needed), this commitment has never really worried me. But then I’m not a typical Labour/Greens voter.

But if it didn’t bother me, it did puzzle me.  Why would the parties of the left, evincing (otherwise) no conversion to the cause of smaller governments, (a) commit themselves to such a relatively moderate share of GDP in govermment spending, and then (b) aim to undershoot that?

Here is what I mean.  In the chart I’ve shown Treasury’s core Crown expenses series as a share of GDP, including the projections from last week’s HYEFU.  I’ve also shown averages for the periods each of the previous three governments were responsible for (thus the former National-led government mainly determined fiscal outcomes for the year to June 2018).

core crown expenses hyefu 18

On the government;s own numbers (and these are pure choices, made by ministers), core Crown spending in the coming five fiscal years (including 2018/19) will be lower every single year than the average in each of the three previous governments, two of which were led by National.   Sure, there was a severe recession in 2008/09 –  not that fault of either main party here –  and then a severe and costly sequence of earthquakes (ditto), but on these numbers government operating expenditure as a share of GDP in 2022/23 will be so moderate that in only two years of the previous fifty (Treasury has some not 100% comparable numbers back to the early 70s) was spending even slightly lower (those were the last two years of the previous government).

It seems extraordinary.

It isn’t as if the economy is grossly overheated (which might suggest a need for considerable caution, since GDP might soon go pop).  Treasury estimates that the output gap is barely positive over the entire projection perion (the numbers so small we might as well just call them zero).   Of course, Treasury (and other forecasters) never forecast recessions, and it seems quite likely that some time in the next five years we will have one.  All else equal, a recession would raise government spending as a share of GDP, but even a 4 per cent loss of GDP in a recession –  which would be pretty severe, similar to 2008/09 –  would only raise the share of spending to GDP by little over one percentage point.   Spending, at the trough of a severe recession, would still be under 30 per cent of GDP –  which was presented in the budget responsibility rules as something they want to fluctuate around, not as an untouchable electric fence.

The only plausible explanation I can see –  after all, the government show no “small government” inclinations when it comes to, eg, regulation –  is the weight they ended up placing on the net debt target.  But that was even more arbitrary than the spending rule.

In isolation, they could spend $5 billion more in 2022/23 and still only have spending as a share of GDP at around the average level of the previous Labour-led government.   Given the low quality of many of the things they are already spending on (fee-free tertiary education, regardless of means or ability, or the Provincial Growth Fund, to take just two examples), I’m reluctant to encourage them.  But it still looks odd.

The Treasury is New Zealand’s lead advisor to the Government on economic and financial policy.The Treasury is New Zealand’s lead advisor to the Government on economic and financial policy.The Treasury is New Zealand’s lead advisor to the Government on economic and financial policy.The Treasury is New Zealand’s lead advisor to the Government on economic and financial policy.

Services exports and economic performance

A couple of pieces I saw yesterday got me thinking again about New Zealand’s services exports and our economic performance.

On the one hand, there was an interesting ANZ report on tourism, which included this chart.

Chart of the week

Spending by international visitors has seen impressive growth in recent years.

International visitor spend by country

tourism

Source: MBIE

And then there was speech on the MFAT website by Catherine Graham, their Economic Divisional Manager.  MFAT doesn’t publish many speeches, so it was interesting to see a bit of an economics angle, even if  it was infected with the government of the day’s propaganda.  Perhaps that was inevitable to some degree in a speech by a public servant, but gratuitous endorsement of the Provincial Growth Fund didn’t seem strictly required in a speech notionally on “small state diplomacy”.

There was a certain breathlessness to the speech

All countries and regions face technological mega trends that are consequential to businesses and governments and affect decisions. Digitalisation, artificial intelligence and automation will increasingly affect wage and employment levels, in developing as well as developed countries. The key difference from the past is that the change – driven by computing power – will occur at an exponential, rather than linear, rate. 

Maybe, although the best guess remains that people who want to work will continue to be able to do so.  Markets adjust like that.  And global productivity growth shows no sign of such a dramatic transformation (for the better).

Also from the breathless side was this

Non-state actors such as the major e-commerce platforms (think Amazon and Alibaba) and the social media giants (think Facebook, Instagram and Google) are each on their own much bigger economically than New Zealand (and many other countries’ economies). How do we navigate our relationships with them as a nation state?

This seems mostly (a) meaningless or (b) wrong.  For example, on checking I learned that the market capitalisation of Facebook was US$390 billion, and its annual revenues were less than US$50 billion.  On no meaningful metric is it bigger than New Zealand, but even if it was there is a fundamental difference between a company and a nation state.  For better or worse, Facebook could be regulated out of existence almost overnight.

But the line that caught my eye, and prompted this post, was a couple of paragraphs later

Continuing to create and leverage smart ideas will be essential for New Zealand’s agricultural sector to keep delivering value to the economy and address broader societal and environmental challenges. Elsewhere in the economy, New Zealand’s success in weightless exports – such as software development, services embedded and embodied in physical products, and the creative arts – are growing apace. It is likely that this trend will be supported by ongoing technological advances.

You’d have thought that a senior economics person in our foreign affairs and trade ministry might have thought it worth mentioning that exports as a share of GDP peaked (in modern times) 18 years ago, or that there has been no growth in the real per capita output of the tradables sector in the same period.

But what about those “weightless exports” specifically?  Here is the time series of New Zealand’s services exports for the last 30 years.

services x nov 18

The 1990s looked quite good, indeed the peak wasn’t even until as late as 2003, but since then it has mostly been downhill.   There was a bit of a pick-up a couple of years ago, but even that doesn’t look to be going anywhere in particular.  The services export share of GDP is currently at a level first reached in 1996.  This is success?

That ANZ chart I started the post with looked quite impressive.  Nominal series over long periods of time often do.  But MBIE now has a nice tourism data dashboard (there is a migration data one coming), with some useful summary charts.  Here are a few of them

tourism mbie3

tourism MBIE 2

and, as a share of GDP –  direct and (estimated) indirect contributions

tourism MBIE 1

(UPDATE: A careful reader points out that these charts, which I directly downloaded from the dashboard, have not translated correctly.  Anyone wanting the correct pictures should go to dashboard itself (link above) and click on the “Overview” menu and then “Economic Contribution”.   As represented above the charts don’t capture the pick-up in tourism in the last couple of years.)

And tourism is by far the largest component of our “weightless exports”.    We all know there are specific services firms doing well, either selling abroad directly or (as Ms Graham notes) with their services embedded in other goods exports, and on the other hand we have the film industry (kept alive on massive direct public subsidies) and the export education industry (aided by substantial implicit subsidies, bundling immigration and work access provisions to the sale of educational services).  The bits that are doing very well, standing on their own feet, just have to be very small relative to the size of the economy, and to the scale of the New Zealand economic challenge (closing those huge productivity gaps).

How do we do by international comparison?

Here are exports of services as a share of GDP for the small OECD countries (I’ve left Ireland and Luxembourg off the chart, but –  for various reasons –  their services export shares are “off the charts” high).  Small countries is the relevant comparator here, as countries with large populations naturally tend to have rather lower foreign trade shares.

services x nov 18 2

Services exports from New Zealand have been shrinking as a share of GDP, and our services export share of GDP was low to start with.   This century to date, only three of these small OECD countries have had more of a fall in the services exports share of GDP than New Zealand has.   And all three of them –  Czech Republic, Slovakia and Estonia –  have in any case managed much faster productivity growth than New Zealand over that period.

Our economy isn’t doing well, no matter how much bureaucrats and politicians like to pretend otherwise, and regardless of whether one focuses on the “weightless” bit of the economy or the rest of it.  We do quite well at employing our people, but then wage rates and productivity are now so modest by advanced country standards –  gaps that simply aren’t closing –  that more people feel the need to work.

And strangely, it seems that MFAT’s Economic Divisional Manager has some inkling of this as she ends this particular part of her speech thus

I strongly believe that earth will never be “flat”, as Thomas Friedman claimed, and that geography remains, to a greater or lesser extent, destiny. Digitalisation is not causing the end of geography as a key determinant of prosperity. Industry clusters, international connections and trade, knowledge exchange and IP transfer are all positively correlated with geographical proximity as well as prosperity – in other words, they are much easier for large countries and countries with land borders to achieve. The catch-22 for small, isolated countries is that they are also the very conditions essential to overcoming the disadvantage of geographical distance. This is a huge challenge for New Zealand, both in terms of international policy but also domestically – currently we see the government tackling this challenge through regional policies such as the Provincial Growth Fund.  

Except that it isn’t some sort of “catch-22”.  It is a constraint that New Zealand officials and politicians need to finally get real about.   If – natural resource based opportunities aside – the best opportunities in the world arise from being in close proximity to lots of other people (as markets, skills networks or whatever), then trying to grow New Zealand’s population as a matter of policy –  lots more people in an unpropitious location –  looks crazy.  Many of the people who come would have been better off to have gone somewhere else (if they could).  And the challenge facing the typical longstanding citizen (native or otherwise) –  to manage top-tier global incomes and living standards – is simply made tougher with each new person our governments bring in.  That is not because of access to jobs (that is a straw man non-argument –  you observe full employment in poor, rich and middling countries) but precisely for the sorts of reasons that Ms Graham of MFAT identifies (even if she apparently has not thought fully through the implications of her observation).

Once were traders

For small countries in particular, foreign trade is a key element in economic prosperity.  Firms in your country develop products and services that people abroad want, and that enables your citizens to consume from the wider range of products and services the rest of the world has to offer.  It isn’t just final products, but trade in intermediate goods and services (inputs to other production) also enables specialisation and the general gains from trade.

Foreign trade wasn’t always important in the islands of New Zealand.  For the centuries after first settlement there was none.  And (although not solely for that reason) the people –  Maori –  were poor.   In modern New Zealand, foreign trade has been critical: 100 years ago there was a widely cited claim that New Zealand did more foreign trade per capita than any other country.  Hand in hand with that, we were among the countries with the highest incomes per capita.

But no longer, on either count.

The latest quarterly numbers out last week did show an uptick in both exports and imports as a share of GDP.  But here is the chart back to 1972 –  annual data, plus the latest quarterly observation.

external trade share

The foreign trade share has been, at best, static for almost 40 years (in most countries they’ve been increasing).  The last few years have seen the trade share the weakest for almost 30 years (and the late 80s construction boom).  I’ve highlighted the only three occasions when exports and imports have averaged 30 per cent or more of GDP: the year to March 1985, the years to March 2000 to 2002, and the year to March 2009.   What was the common feature of those years?   It wasn’t the stellar success of outward-oriented businesses.  It was the (unexpected) severe weakness in the exchange rate: the devaluation of 1984, the period around the end of the dot-com boom when US interest rates were high, and New Zealand (and Australian) dollars were unattractive, and the international financial crisis (and extreme risk aversion) of 2008/09.   Based on the rest of the set of New Zealand policies, those low exchange rates weren’t sustainable, and there was a relatively quick rebound.

What of other advanced countries?

Big countries tend to do less foreign trade (share of GDP) than small countries.  That is no surprise, as there are many more markets and opportunities for specialisation (gains from trading) close to home.  Here are the OECD countries that in 2016 (last year with complete data) had exports and imports averaging less than 30 per cent of GDP.

Australia 21.0
Chile 27.8
Italy 29.0
Israel 28.2
Japan 15.6
Turkey 23.4
UK 29.1
USA 13.3

Of them, Italy, Japan, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States are big countries and big economies.    You’d expect to find them on this table, and if anything the anomaly is Germany, with a foreign trade share now in excess of 40 per cent of GDP.

Of the remaining countries, there are

  • Australia, with five times our population,
  • Chile, with more than three times our population, and with the second lowest labour productivity in the OECD (beating only Mexico), and
  • Israel, which isn’t much larger than New Zealand but which –  as I’ve highlighted here previously –  has a similarly lousy productivity growth record.

And all, in one form or another, with severe disadvantages of distance.

There has been a tendency in some circles to excuse New Zealand’s low foreign trade shares by citing distance, but simultaneously a reluctance to take seriously what is implied by that limitation.  If the opportunities for foreign trade from this remote location don’t look particularly good, isn’t there something deeply illogical (or worse) about continuing to use policy (as successive governments have done for last 25 years) to drive up our population –  more people in an unpropitious location?  All the more so when adopting that policy approach also involves driving the real exchange rate up, away from where it would likely settle otherwise.  Not all New Zealanders suffer in the process –  if you run a business geared, in effect, solely towards population growth you may well flourish –  but New Zealanders as a whole have.

For all the occasional talk about rebalancing the economy (from both main parties, at least when they first take office) none of it seems to take any serious account of this constraint.   Which is only set to become more seriously as –  relative to other countries –  the opportunities here shrink with the apparent determination to pursue net-zero emissions targets.  Planting (lots more) is unlikely to be a path to sustained prosperity or higher productivity.

These days, New Zealand’s per capita foreign trade will among the lowest in the advanced world.   Among the rich countries, only (very big) Japan and the United States will be materially lower than us.  It isn’t a mark of a successful economy.  But neither government nor opposition have any real strategy –  or interest? –  in turning things around.

Exports of services: a dismal picture

In my post yesterday, I highlighted the pretty stark divergence in the performance of the tradables and non-tradables parts of the economy.  As the key chart in yesterday’s post illustrated, in the 1990s and into the early 2000s both the tradables and non-tradables sectors were growing strongly, even in per capita terms.   Since then, the non-tradables sector has continued to grow pretty strongly, but there has been no growth at all in per capita tradables sector GDP –  in fact, the current level is almost 10 per cent below the 2004 peak.

One element of the tradables sector that is commonly supposed to be doing well is exports of services: tourism, export education, and the rest.   The government has indicated that it hoped the ICT component would surge ahead and, on some definition or other, be the “second largest contributor to our economy by 2025”.

But how have services exports  actually being doing, as a share of the economy?  Here is the New Zealand chart.

services X june 18

There was really strong growth over the 15 years or so to the peak (marked) in around 2002.  Services exports lifted from less than 7 per cent of GDP to in excess of 10 per cent.  Since then, the trend has been back downwards again –  the current level only a touch above 8 per cent.  And, at that, one of the largest components –  export education – is, in effect, quite subsidised, by being bundled together with the ability to get work rights and residency points.

How have other advanced countries done?

Here is a chart, using annual OECD data, showing (a) New Zealand, (b) the median for those small OECD countries with complete data since 1986, and (c) the median for six small former Communist eastern and central European OECD countries, countries engaged in the sort of catch-up that New Zealand was supposed to experience.

services X 2 june 18

I don’t fully understand what was going in the former Communist countries in the first few years of the century, although since in many there was a big boom in domestic demand and credit, the export sectors (especially the bits not involving FDI) were probably under pressure.   Whatever the story for those countries then, both lots of small advanced countries have seen rising shares of their economies accounted for by services exports over the past decade.  We haven’t.

Here is another way of looking at our experience, looking at the percentage point change in the services exports share of GDP since our peak in 2002.

services x 3 june 18

There were two –  of 34 – OECD countries that saw a slightly larger fall in the GDP share of services exports.  In one case, the growth in goods exports more than offset the fall.  In the other –  Chile –  both goods and services exports shrank as a share of GDP, as happened in New Zealand.

As ever, foreign trade isn’t everything.  But when your per capita incomes and productivity are so far behind the leading countries in the OECD, the typical way in which a country would undergo a sustainable lift would involve a larger share of the economy accounted for by both exports and imports  That just hasn’t happened in New Zealand –  and, of course, neither has there been any catch-up.   Which isn’t surprising when, on the measure I illustrated yesterday, the real exchange rate over the last 15 years has averaged 27 per cent higher than the average level in the previous 15 years.

That higher real exchange rate didn’t get there by chance.  It was the consequence –  mostly unwitting – of deliberate government choices.

On which note, it is nine months today since the election.  In other words, a quarter of the government’s term has gone.  And, as far as I can see, there is nothing in policy announced, or foreshadowed, likely to do anything to close the productivity gaps,  materially alter the real exchange rate, narrow the large average interest differentials, or sustainably increase the export share of our economy so that in turn we can support a larger import share.  Oh, and market prices suggest no confidence that the manifest evil that is the housing market is on the way to being fixed either.

Economic growth within environmental limits

That was the title of a speech David Parker gave a couple of weeks ago.  Parker is, as you will recall, a man wearing many hats: Minister for the Environment, Associate Minister of Finance, Minister for Trade and Export Growth, and Attorney-General.  Since he was speaking to a seminar organised by the Resource Management Law Association, this speech looked like it might touch on all his areas of portfolio responsibility.

In passing, I’ll note that he clearly doesn’t live in Wellington.  He introduces his speech lamenting that New Zealand had just had its hottest summer on record.  Most Wellingtonians –  no matter how liberal (indeed, I recently heard an academic working on climate issues make exactly this point) – revelled in a summer that for once felt almost like those the rest of New Zealand normally enjoys.   The sea water was even enjoyably swimmable not just bracing or “refreshing”.

But the focus of his speech is on economic growth.

First he highlights some of New Zealand’s underperformance.

New Zealand has enjoyed relatively strong nominal economic growth over recent years, bolstered by strong commodity prices, population growth and tourism. More inputs, mostly people, have been added into the economy but, with population growth stripped out, per capita growth has been poor at about 1 per cent per annum.

That underperformance has been the story of decades now.   And poor as the growth in per capita real GDP has been, productivity growth –  real GDP per hour worked –  has been worse.  In one particular bad period, over the last five years or so, labour productivity growth has been close to zero (around 0.2-0.3 per cent per annum on average).

Parker is obviously aware of this, beginning his next paragraph “we also have a productivity problem”, but seems more than a little confused about the nature of the issue.

Capital has been misallocated, including into speculative asset classes such as rental housing, rather than into growing our points of comparative advantage.

But…….your government (rightly) keeps telling us that too few houses have been built, laments increases in rents etc.   If we are going to have anything like the rate of population growth we’ve run over recent decades (let alone the last few years) ideally more real resources would be devoted to house-building, not less.  Simply changing the ownership of existing houses doesn’t divert real resources from anything else, or even use material amount of real resources.

The Minister goes on

We aim to diversify our exports and markets as we move from volume to value. We want to change investment signals so more capital goes towards the productive economy rather than unproductive speculation.  Where we need immigration, it will be more targeted.

That last sentence sounds promising, even tantalising.  But it doesn’t seem consistent with the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, with Labour Party policy on immigration, or with the (in)action of the government on immigration policy to date.     Our large-scale non-citizen immigration programme runs on unchanged, complemented by the big increases in recent years in the numbers here on short-term work visas.    A reduced rate of population growth would reduce the extent to which real resources needed to be devoted to meet the –  real and legitimate –  needs of a fast-growing population.

The Minister also makes a bold claim

I am an experienced CEO and company director. I know from experience that we can achieve economic, export and productivity growth within environmental limits.

No doubt, as absolute statements, those claims are true. But surely the relevant question is “how much?”     After all, the message Labour and the Greens were running in the election campaign was that what apparent economic success there had been in recent years was built on “raping and pillaging” the environment –  water pollution, offshore oil exploration, emissions etc.   And yet, as the Minister notes, even that “economic success” didn’t add up to much: weak per capita GDP growth, almost non-existent productivity growth, no progress in closing the gaps to the rest of the advanced world.  And what of exports?

exports 2018The past 15 years have been pretty dreadful, and the last time the export share of the economy was less than it was in the March 2017 year was the year to March 1976 –  back in the days when (a) export prices had plummeted, and (b) the economy was ensnared in import protection, artifically reducing both exports and imports (our openness to the world more generally).

In the Minister’s own words

But economic management over recent years has put pressure on our social wellbeing and our environment. 

So how, we might wonder, is a greater emphasis on environmental protection going to be consistent with the economic growth, and the exports and productivity growth that David Parker says the government aspires to?

As Minister for Economic Development and for Trade and Export Growth, my priorities reflect the reality that our economic success will be underpinned by a more productive, sustainable, competitive and internationally-connected New Zealand.

It is great to see growth in the value of output from our productive sectors. The Government wants to work with them to ensure that the right conditions are in place for firms to thrive and trade, and that we maximise the value of the goods we produce, and encourage high-quality investment in New Zealand. We want our sectors and regions to realise their full potential.

Economic growth and trade helps us create a greater number of sustainable jobs with higher wages and an improved standard of living for all New Zealanders.

However, the Government is clear that economic growth cannot continue to be at the cost of the environment. This is not idealism: it is grounded in common sense. Protecting our environment safeguards our economy in the long term – our country has built its economy and reputation on our natural capital.

I’m not arguing against improving environmental standards, perhaps especially around fresh water.  Improvements in the environment are typically seen as a normal good: as we get richer we want (and typically get) more of it.  But those gains usually come at some (direct) economic cost.    Major change isn’t just wished into existence.

In some places, perhaps, these changes are easier than in others.  If the tradables sector of your economy is, in any case, in a transition  away from heavy industry to, say, financial or business services (perhaps the UK experience), you are naturally moving from industries that might otherwise tend to pollute heavily towards those that don’t.  And farming –  and land-based industries –  might be a small part of the economy anyway.

But this is New Zealand.  And in New Zealand probably 85 per cent of all our exports are natural-resource based, and total services exports (even including tourism) are no higher as a share of GDP than they were 15 or 20 year ago.  Not very many new industries seem to find it economic to both develop here, and then remain here.   We –  and the Minister –  might wish it were otherwise, but up to now it hasn’t been.  Instead, what export growth we’ve had has been in industries where the government is often –  and perhaps rightly –  concerned about the environmental side-effects.

In his speech, the Minister declares that as Minister for the Environment improving the quality of freshwater is his “number one priority”.  I might have hoped that fixing the urban planning laws was at least up there, but lets grant him his priority for now.    How does he envisage bringing about change?

In environmental matters there are only three ways to change the future – education, regulation and price. Of these the most important for water is regulation

And regulation comes at a cost, reducing the competitiveness of firms and industries that are no longer free to do as they previously did.  The best presumption then has to be that future growth in affected sectors will be less than previously, and less than it would otherwise have been.  Sometimes, regulatory and tax initiatives spark brilliant new technologies enabling industries to move to a whole new level.  But you can’t count on that.  You have to work on the assumption that regulation costs.  Those costs might be worth bearing, but you shouldn’t pretend they aren’t there.

The same will, presumably, go for including agriculture in the emissions trading system, however gradually.   Relative to the past, firms facing such a price will no longer be as competitive as they otherwise would have been.    And experts tell us that as yet there are few technologies for effectively reducing animal emissions –  other than having fewer animals.

And then, of course, there are the direct bans.  The ban on new offshore oil exploration permits hadn’t been announced when the Minister gave his speech, but it will –  by explicit design –  reduce output in the exploration sector and, over time, in the domestic production of oil and gas.    It might be –  as some of the government’s acolytes argue – “the thing to do”, “leading the way”, “this generation’s nuclear-free moment” [that one really doesn’t persuade if you thought the Lange government’s gesture was a mistake too], but it must come at an economic cost to New Zealanders.  An economy totally reliant on the ability to skilfully exploit its natural resources, consciously and deliberately chooses to leave some chunk of those –  size unknown –  untapped.

Again, over the course of the last 45 years –  the period of that exports chart –  we’ve had a lot of oil and gas development.  All else equal, our economic performance can only be set back without it – not perhaps this year, or next, but over time.  And it all adds up.

Reading through to the end of the Minister’s speech there is simply no credible story for how he, or the government, expects to be able to do all these things and still see some transformation in the outlook for per capita GDP growth, or growth in productivity or exports.  Indeed, there is nothing there to explain why the outlook won’t be worsened by the sorts of initiatives –  each perhaps worthwhile in their own terms.

It might be different if the government was willing to do something serious about immigration policy, rather than just carrying on with the bipartisan “big New Zealand” strategy.   When natural resources are a crucial part of your economy –  and everyone accepts they still are in New Zealand –  then adding ever more people, by policy initiative, to a fixed quantity of natural resource is a straightforward recipe for depleting the stock of resources per capita, and thus spreading ever more thinly the income that flows from those natural resources.

It is pretty basic stuff: Norway wouldn’t be so much richer per capita than the UK –  both producing oil and gas from the North Sea –  if Norway had 65 million people.  And if Norway decided to get out of the oil and gas business –  leaving underground a big part of their natural resource endowment –  they’d be crazy to drive up their population anyway.    But that is exactly the thrust of what the New Zealand government is doing between:

  • what is aspires to do on water,
  • its ambitious emissions targets, in a country with very high marginal abatement costs, and
  • the ban on new oil and gas exploration permits

even as it keeps on targeting more non-citizen migrants (per capita) than almost any other country on the planet, and as the export share of GDP has been under downward pressure anyway.

It is not as if there is a compelling alternative in which export industries based on other than natural resources are thriving, boosted immensely by the infusion of top-end global talent, in ways that might make us think that natural resource industries could easily be dispensed with and a rapidly rising population was putting us on a path to a more prosperoous, productive, and environmentally-friendly future.  Its been a dream, or an aspiration, of some for decades.  But there is barely a shred of evidence of anything like that happening in this most remote of locations.

It might all be a lot different if the government was willing to step aside from the “big New Zealand” mentality, or put aside for a moment fears of absurd comparisons with Donald Trump –  recall that (a) our immigration is almost all legal, and (b) residence approvals here (per capita) are three times those in the US (under Clinton/Bush/Obama).

If the government were to move to phase in a residence approvals target of 10000 to 15000 per annum (the per capita rate in the US), with supporting changes to work visa policies, we’d pretty quickly see quite a different –  and better –  economic climate.   We’d no longer have to devote so much resource (labour) to simply building to support a growing population –  houses, roads [rail if you must], schools, shops, offices.  All else equal our interest rates –  typically the highest in the advanced world –  would be quite a bit lower, and the real exchange rate could be expected to fall a long way.  I don’t think there is a mention in the whole of David Parker’s speech of the real exchange rate, but it is a key element in coping successfully with the sorts of transitions the Minister says he aspires to.   Farmers, for example, will be able to compete, even with tougher water regulations, even with the inclusion of agriculture in the ETS.  And more industries in other sector will find it remunerative to develop here, and remain based here.  We’d actually have a chance of meeting both environmental and economic objectives instead of –  as the government would see it –  having consistently failed on both counts.

Last year, I ran several posts (including this column) making the point that rapid population growth –  mostly the consequence of immigration policy –  was the single biggest factor behind the continued growth in, and high level of, carbon emissions in New Zealand over recent decades.  In other words, we had made a rod for our own back and then –  through the process of driving up the real exchange rate –  made it even more difficult and costly to abate those emissions without materially undermining our standard of living.  OIA requests established that neither MBIE nor the Ministry for the Environment had even explored the issue.

It wasn’t a popular view, but I stand by the argument.  In a country still very heavily dependent on natural resources, if you care about the environment, and about “doing our bit” on carbon emissions, it is simply crazy to keep on actively driving up the population.  Doubly so, if you think you can do so and still improve productivity, export growth, and overall economic performance.  The Productivity Commission is due to release soon its draft report on making the transition to a low emissions economy.  I hope they have been willing to recognise, and explicitly address, the integral connection to immigration policy in the specific circumstances New Zealand faces.  Not wishing to confront the connection –  an awkward one for the pro-immigration people on the left in particular –  won’t make it go away.