Overselling past reforms

Today is, apparently, the 30th anniversary of the Public Finance Act.    There is a conference being held this weekend at Victoria University to mark the occasion, with all manner of speakers over three days, including various famous figures from the reform era including Roger Douglas, Ruth Richardson, Graham Scott, and David Caygill.

There is nothing particularly wrong with conferences of this sort –  although the ever-present question is how much taxpayers’ money gets spent, one way or another –  but much depends on the extent to which such conferences lean towards on the one hand the self-congratulatory and, on the other, the self-scrutinising and challenging.    There was a conference in Wellington a few years ago to mark the 25th anniversary of inflation targeting and the Reserve Bank Act, and although it leaned to the mutually self-congratulatory, a) it had speakers who seemed to offer greater rigour than this weekend’s conference programme suggests is likely, and (b) even partial sceptics occasionally got a word in.   Time will tell about this weekend’s conference, and I hope that at least the New Zealand academic and public sector speakers make their addresses available more widely.

I have no particular problem with the Public Finance Act, which now incorporates the provisions of the later Fiscal Responsibility Act.  But what consistently irks me is the way a handful of champions of the Act oversell it.   Most prominent among the oversellers in Professor Ian Ball of Victoria, who had a fairly senior role in financial management at The Treasury at the time the Public Finance Act and the Fiscal Responsibility Act were being passed.   And the real prompt for this post was an article he had in yesterday’s Dominion-Post.   Whatever else Professor Ball picked up, or contributed, in his time at The Treasury, he seems to have missed the pretty elementary line, drummed into students from an early age, that correlation is not the same as causation.   And that isn’t the worst of what was on display in the article.

He begins

When New Zealand’s Public Finance Act was passed in 1989, it represented a set of changes that was both radical and untested. Partway through its implementation, in 1992, the Economist published an article describing the changes in a generally positive way, but withholding judgment and concluding: “Time will tell.”

With the act’s 30th anniversary on July 26,  it seems the right moment to consider what time has to say, and whether New Zealanders should, at last, break open the bubbly.

To jump to the end, he thinks we should be breaking out the bubbly.  But why?

Much of his case seems to rest on this

[Government] Net worth now stands at over $134b, equivalent to about 45 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

But he makes no effort at all –  not even hinting at more-developed arguments in fuller papers –  to demonstrate why we should conclude that the improvement in New Zealand’s fiscal position stems in whole, or even in large part, from these process-focused pieces of legislation (Public Finance Act and Fiscal Responsibility Act).  He also offers no particular reason to suppose the government net worth of 45 per cent of GDP is somehow optimal, or better than (for example) a number near zero, or even negative  (given that by far the Crown’s largest asset, its sovereign power to increase taxes is not included in these balance sheet calculations, and that the actual taxes supporting the net worth Professor Ball celebrates have material –  large in some cases –  deadweight costs, in an economy that has continued to badly underperform).

And while no one is going to disagree that a decent fiscal position (whatever that means) can be a “source of security” (Ball’s words), the evidence he adduces in support of his claim is less than convincing.

The comparison with other countries is striking – the governments of Australia, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom all have significantly negative net worth, and in the case of the UK and US the negative net worth is roughly the size of their respective GDPs.

The principles of fiscal responsibility imported into the Public Finance Act from the Fiscal Responsibility Act see positive net worth as a “buffer” to economic and other shocks. So it has turned out.

While net worth declined for only four years after the financial crisis, in the four countries cited above government net worth remains, a decade later, on a downward track. A strong balance sheet apparently allows a much quicker recovery.

But, but, but…..Our recovery wasn’t “much quicker”, let along stronger, than those in Australia (which on some measures didn’t have a recession in the first place), Canada, or the US.  And whether one approves of those choices or not, the fact remains that unlike those countries we didn’t use discretionary stimulatory fiscal policy to respond to the last recession (I argue we didn’t need to because we could still cut interest rates).

Ball continues with his straw men

But has the history of running surpluses resulted in slower economic growth than in the comparable countries that have been incurring consistent deficits?

I’m not sure anyone would think there was such a relationship, but set that to one side.  What does Ball have to say?

Apparently not. The latest World Bank numbers (for 2017) show that the five countries have growth rates between 1.8 and 3.0 per cent, with New Zealand second at 2.8 per cent.

Can he be serious?  A senior professor, former senior official, really thinks one year’s GDP growth data, not even correcting for differences in population growth (hint: New Zealand’s has recently been extremely rapid) is some sort of support for his case about legislation focused on the medium to long term?

Perhaps instead he might consider the productivity record over 30 years?  Of his group of countries, ours has been the worst (to be clear, I’m not suggesting that has anything to do with the PFA, simply that one can’t seriously advance New Zealand “economic success” as support for the PFA).

He moves on to matters social.

Perhaps, then, the impressive fiscal and economic results have been at the expense of the social fabric? By no means are things perfect in New Zealand.

To which he responds

The Wellbeing Budget in May focuses on problems of child poverty and mental health, among many other issues that require government attention and resources. Yet these issues are still able to be addressed while budgeting to maintain a surplus.

Few of the (few) cheerleaders for this year’s Budget would claim it was any more than a start, but since the PFA was never supposed to constrain the size of government (it is mostly about process and transparency), of course it doesn’t stop governments spending more –  wisely and otherwise –  if they choose.

Ah, but we are “happy”

New Zealand stacks up very well, scoring near the top in a number of international rankings of social progress, living standards and even happiness (where we are eighth, ahead of the other four countries).

And yet –  and not because of the PFA –  the net flow of New Zealanders is still from here to other countries.

We then get into the folksy analogies

But do New Zealanders benefit from their government having a strong balance sheet?

It is very like having a strong personal balance sheet. There is a greater ability to absorb shocks or surprises without being forced into taking drastic remedial steps – you can fix the car without having to cut the food budget. This was demonstrated in the way the government bounced back, financially, from the financial crisis and the earthquakes.

As part of managing a shock, a strong balance sheet also enables easier access to emergency debt financing. Coupled with this is the benefit of being able to borrow more easily and more cheaply in normal times, if it is necessary or desirable to do so. This might be useful, for example, if there is a need to invest in infrastructure.

I like a folksy analogy as much as the next person, but you always need to be careful using them to ensure that the key elements of comparison are valid.   Here they mostly aren’t.  Positive accounting net worth means nothing about a sovereign’s access to credit, none of the comparator countries whose fiscal performance he laments have had any problem raising debt, New Zealand bond yields (for other reasons) have been consistently among the highest in the advanced world……and, unlike someone whose car breaks down, governments have the power to tax.  And did I note that there was nothing impressive about New Zealand’s recovery from the 2008/09 recession, and New Zealand’s productivity record this decade is even more dire than usual.

And then, without even really noticing, he rather undercuts his own case.

At the time the Public Finance Bill was going through Parliament, the auditor-general said the reforms “will give effect to the most fundamental changes to financial management practices seen in New Zealand’s history. These reforms are enormous, ambitious, and, in large part, unprecedented anywhere in the world”.

Thirty years on, the act has been amended  several times, but the most ambitious elements remain firmly in place. Notwithstanding the apparent success of these reforms, a number of key elements have been attempted by few, if any, other countries.

Reforms that, 30 years on, have not been followed by many, if any, other countries surely should be deemed to have failed an important test.  Other smart people have looked at those “key elements” and concluded that actually they weren’t so valuable or generally appropriate after all.  It was a bit like that with the Reserve Bank Act and inflation targeting: various countries did take some practices and inspiration from our model, but not a single one followed for long our model of putting all the power in the hands of a single Governor and building an accountability framework primarily around the ability to sack the Governor.  Eventually, even New Zealand changed those bits of law, and moved back towards the international mainstream.

Professor Ball ends this way

In October 2018, the Economist weighed in again, saying: “Only in one country, New Zealand, is public-sector accounting up to scratch. It updates its public-sector balance-sheet every month, allowing for a timely assessment of public-sector net worth.”

Perhaps, ahead of any further changes, this might be an opportunity to raise a glass to celebrate an ambitious and successful act.

I don’t update my personal balance sheet every month.   Superannuation funds I’m a trustee of don’t look at their balance sheets every month.   For what conceivable practical purpose do we have monthly estimates of the government’s financial net worth?  At best, financial net worth is some sort of constraint on governments, not the reason for being –  as in, say, corporate accounts.  I’m not necessarily opposed to having the data, but it looks a lot like an example of giving prominent place to what is measurable (on all sorts of assumptions) and not necessarily to what actually matters.   We don’t even need monthly house price data (although we have it) or monthly productivity data (we don’t, and probably shouldn’t) to highlight these egregious failures of New Zealand governments.  And monthly government net worth data –  or the rest of the panoply of features of the PFA –  has done nothing discernible to improve the actual quality of New Zealand government spending (or taxation).

As I’ve argued repeatedly here over the years, I think fiscal policy outcomes are something that successive waves of New Zealand politicians can take considerable credit for.   We had a bad scare in the mid 80s and early 90s and that clearly played a pretty formative part, both in choices political parties made in successive elections/budgets, and in the legislation (eg PFA/FRA) they’ve been willing to pass –  but my hypothesis is that there is a common explanation for both, rather than causation running from the (facilitative, transparent) legislation to the fiscal outcomes.

I tend to be relatively sceptical of net worth numbers (for governments) and the data often aren’t available for lots of countries for long runs of time.  But I’ve run this chart in an earlier post, looking at net general government (ie all layers of government) financial liabilities.

net debt OECD

Here I’d concentrate on the comparison between the blue line (New Zealand) and the yellow line (the median of small OECD countries). New Zealand’s performance doesn’t particularly stand out relative to those other small countries (or to Australia, which has lower net general government financial liabilities than New Zealand), even though we – like them – even though there is a stark contrast to several of the largest OECD countries (notably US and Japan).

Any story about the successes of New Zealand fiscal policy that tries to put much weight on New Zealand specific legislative reforms needs to grapple more seriously with the experience of other well-governed small advanced countries, and make more effort to demonstrate how our legislation accounts for any (rather more marginal) differences.    It also has to ask how credible is a story that suggests that, say, US fiscal problems result largely from, say, insufficient transparency (and other bureaucratic type solutions).  In that respect, it is a bit like the Reserve Bank Act: it wasn’t responsible for the much lower inflation of the 1990s and 2000s (there were global phenomena at work, including widespread political choices to lower inflation), but was a broadly useful framework for managing a commitment to lower inflation and (at least in principle) being open and transparent about how policy would be conducted.

I guess it is good to be able to be proud of things one was involved in over the course of one’s working life.  But I hope this weekend’s conference is a bit more rigorous, and self-scrutinising, than what was on display to Dominion-Post readers yesterday.   Careful evaluation, careful analysis, should be key inputs to the design and updating of good policy.

 

 

 

 

A useful but modest step forward on fiscal management

A year ago the Minister of Finance gave a pre-Budget speech in which he restated the fiscal rules Labour and the Greens had campaigned on.  Among them

We will reduce the level of net core Crown debt to 20 percent of GDP within five years of taking office.

Here was what I said at the time

In general, debt targets –  with relatively short time horizons to achieve them –  aren’t very sensible as operational rules.   Such a rule can mean that a few fairly small, essentially random, forecasting errors in the same direction can cumulate to produce a need for quite a bit of (perhaps unnecessary) adjustments to spending or revenue.  More seriously, recessions can throw things badly off course for a while, and risk pushing a government into a corner –  either abandon the target just as debt is rising, or fallback on pro-cyclical (recession exacerbating) fiscal adjustments –  even though, in across-the-cycle terms, the government’s finances might be just fine.  No one looks forward to a recession, but governments (and central banks) need to work on the likelihood that another will be along before too long.   Natural disasters –  the other shock the Minister mentioned –  can have the same effect.

I see I omitted to mention that other pro-cyclical fiscal risk that a (point) debt target exacerbates: the temptation to spend up further in good times to keep debt from undershooting the target.

And so I am pleased see reports today of another pre-Budget speech from the (same) Minister of Finance, in which he said

The Government will scrap specific debt targets in favour of moving towards a target range, Finance Minister Grant Robertson has announced.

The current target, part of Labour’s Budget Responsibility Rules, is to reduce net debt to 20 percent of GDP by 2021/22. When that target is achieved, it will be replaced with a debt range.

Robertson did not specify what this was, but said Treasury had provided him with advice.

“At this point we are looking at a range of 15-25 percent of GDP, based on advice from the Treasury,” Robertson said.

Does it create risks?  Yes, it does, and that is why I would still favour dropping debt targets altogether.  There will be increased pressure for more spending up front.  But, operated responsibly, the proposed new debt-range provides only trivially greater amounts of flexibility.    Why?  Because no one ever expects the government will keep debt/GDP at a constant point every single year, but if they take the new range seriously people will expect them to keep within the sort of range all the time.  It is wide enough, it should be able to encompass the effects of most booms and busts, but only if in normal times debt/GDP is kept close to the midpoint of the range.  You probably give yourself a degree of freedom to have debt fluctuate between 19 and 21 per cent in normal times, but you always have to remember that a recession could be along any time.  A couple of years in which revenue is 2 percentage points of GDP below average and you will be on course for the top of the debt target range pretty quickly if your starting point is anything much higher than 21 per cent.  Tax revenue as a share of GDP fell from 31 per cent in the year to March 2006 to 25 per cent in the year to March 2011, and (a) while the economy started from a materially positive output gap, and (b) there were some tax cuts, a fall of a couple of percentage points of GDP is easy to envisage, and necessary to plan around.

My own preferred approach, without a debt target, is as I outlined it last year.

Personally, I would be much more comfortable with only two key quantitative fiscal rules:

  • a commitment to maintaining the operating balance in modest surplus, once allowance is made for the state of the economic cycle (cyclical adjustment in other words) and for extraordinary one-off items (eg serious natural disasters), and
  • something about size of government.    Simply as an economist I don’t have a strong view on what the number should be, although as I’ve noted previously it is curious that the current left-wing government, arguing all sorts of past underspends, was elected on a fiscal plan that promised spending as a share of GDP that undershot their own medium-term benchmark (that around 30 per cent of GDP).

The suggested fiscal surplus rule isn’t an ironclad protection (any more than a real-world inflation target in a Policy Targets Agreement is).  There are uncertainties about the state of the cycle and how best to do the cyclical adjustment, and incentives to try to game what might be counted as an “extraordinary one-off”.   That is why the fiscal numbers and Budget plans will always need scrutinising and challenging.  But if followed, more or less, such a rule would be sufficient to see debt/GDP ratios typically falling in normal times, and to avoid things going badly wrong over a period of several decades.  That is probably about as much as one can realistically hope for.

The focus would be on the first of those, the structural balance rule.

Part of the necessary scrutiny and challenge would be provided by that fiscal council the government consulted on last year, but about which nothing has been heard for months.

Thoughts prompted by a government debt chart

I’ve just started reading an interesting new book on sovereign debt defaults (including the question of why there aren’t more of them).    When I’ve finished the book and done the review I’m supposed to be writing, I might even do a post on that intriguing issue.  But on page 3 of the book, this scene-setting chart appeared.

world public debt

It is a pretty strong upward trend, and the trend isn’t obviously different after 2008.

It is important to remember how dramatically the composition of world GDP has changed since 1980 (think of China in particular, where public debt is much higher than it was).

It is quite a remarkable contrast to New Zealand’s record.  This chart uses data from The Treasury’s website, for the longest gross-debt time series they show.

GSID

Gross (central) government debt, as a share of GDP, is lower than it was at any time in the 1970s and 1980s.

New Zealand readers are probably mostly aware that our choices have been different from those of many other countries.  But I was a bit surprised by quite how unusual.

Consistent historical data are not easy to come by.  The OECD has gross government debt data back to 1980 for only 13 of the 35 member countries (not including New Zealand).   All thirteen recorded increases in the ratio of general government gross debt to GDP over the period 1980 to 2018.    The OECD has data for even fewer countries back to 1972 (when my New Zealand chart starts), and none of those countries have  seen a fall in the ratio of government debt to GDP over that full period.

For many, but not all, purposes net government debt is a more useful measure.   Long-term historical data are even more patchy for net debt than gross debt, but what there is of it suggests New Zealand’s public debt record doesn’t stand out quite as much: Denmark, Finland, Norway (in particular), and Sweden all recorded falls over 1980 to 2018, as would New Zealand properly measured (the series Treasury reports excludes the assets of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund).

What of the more recent period?  The OECD has reasonably complete data for the net liabilities of the general government since around 1995.   Here is how New Zealand compares to the OECD total.

net debt nz and OECD.png

Unlike the world series I started this post with, in this chart the OECD total line really does look different after the 2008/09 recession than before it.

But this picture tends to flatter New Zealand.  Here is another chart, this time showing the line for the median OECD country, and for the two largest OECD economies (US and Japan).

net debt median

Net debt in New Zealand has fallen while that for the median OECD country is little changed (if anything, there are some reasons why you might think “optimal” public debt would be higher than in the median OECD country) but what really stands out is the deterioration in the net debt ratios of both the US and Japan.

China isn’t a member of the OECD and the IMF doesn’t have net debt data for China, but Chinese gross government debt (share of GDP) has increased substantially –  more than for the US –  over this period.

And here is one more chart

net debt 3

Here the orange line is the median for the small (population 10m or less) OECD countries, including everyone from Norway to Greece).  Our net debt as a share of GDP has fallen a bit more than that small country median,  but a median of under 20 per cent of GDP scarcely seems troubling or inappropriate.  I’ve also shown Canada and Australia –  not small but two other Anglo countries.  Australia has had consistently lower net debt than New Zealand –  despite all the political huffing and puffing there over the last decade –  and while Canada is more indebted the fall since 1995 has been larger.

Overall, our ratio of net government debt to GDP is just inside the lower quartile among OECD countries (seven countries have lower numbers).   Rising public debt may be a real issue for some countries –  and perhaps even for the world, given the possibilities of spillovers if/when things go wrong – but it is hardly a ubiquitous experience.

I don’t have any strong policy point to make with this post.  Personally I think fiscal policy in New Zealand has been managed fairly well by successive governments over most of the last 30+ years.  On the OECD net debt metric, we show as having an estimated 0.00 per cent net general government debt in 2018.

I’m not a strong supporter of the current government’s budget responsibility rules –  although I’m more puzzled at their commitments around spending (very similar to the previous government’s plans) than around debt.   But while there are plenty of people out there championing the idea that the government should take on a higher level of debt (especially given that interest rates are low),  I remain sceptical of those claims.  That is partly because I see little sign that governments spend wisely within current limits (and possible new projects must, almost by definition be less-valuable, lower ranked, proposals), partly because interest rates are low for a reason (not necessarily a fully-understood reason) about expected demand for, or expected returns on, investment, and partly because much about what government do tends to reduce the need for private individuals to save, and in that context a benchmark of something like net zero public debt (which we might fluctuate below in good times, and above in bad times) seems a not-inappropriate counterbalance.

 

Modern monetary theory, old-school fiscal practice

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

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

MMT1

MMT2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In that respect, I largely share his view.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has monetary policy run its course?

In one of the world’s most prominent economics platforms, the economics columnist for the Financial Times, Martin Wolf uses this week’s column for a piece headed “Monetary policy has run its course”, with a subheading “It has made secular stagnation worse.  Fiscal alternatives look a safer bet.”.    That headline was guaranteed to get my attention, disagreeing as I do with all three limbs of the apparent argument.

Wolf draws on various other papers, but doesn’t really make his case in a compelling way.  Take secular stagnation first.  There are various definitions: Wolf uses one of “chronically weak demand relative to potential output”, while the FT’s own lexicon uses a materially diferent version

Secular stagnation is a condition of negligible or no economic growth in a market-based economy.

On the former definition, most of the OECD is estimated to be back somewhere near a zero output gap, and the unemployment rate now in several major economies (but not New Zealand) is lower than it was going into the last recession (and there is a striking fact that the worst performers are all in the euro common currency, a system Wolf tends to be keen on).  That has happened without big new surges in overall ratios of private debt to GDP.

On the latter definition, even in countries with high starting levels of productivity, productivity growth has slowed but not stopped.  Per capita GDP across the OECD is now about 10 per cent higher in real terms than it was in 2007.  Not stellar, but it means that 10 per cent of all the output growth managed in the last several hundred years (since the Industrial Revolution) has been in the last decade alone.

I think there are credible stories under which monetary policy wasn’t used sufficiently aggressively in, and following, the last recession –  partly because both markets and central banks misjudged things and expected a strong rebound, so were always looking towards the first (or subsequent) tightenings.  But is very difficult to construct a story, in which monetary policy has made any material (adverse) difference to population growth, productivity growth, actual innovation opportunities or the like.    And even if, for argument’s sake, there was some effect in the frontier economies, most OECD economies (including large ones like the UK, Japan, Italy, Spain, Canada, South Korea) are nowhere near the frontier.

Having said that, there is little doubt that neutral real interest rates have fallen away very substantially over the last 15 years or more.  They are now at levels that are pretty much without historical precedent.  This is the first chart in the article.

ft chart

That means there are issues.  There is an effective lower bound, at present, on short-term nominal interest rates.  No one knows precisely where that bound is, but there is a degree of consensus that taking your policy interest rate much below -0.75 per cent will lead to fairly large scale conversion of deposit balances into physical cash (not, primarily, transactions balances –  where the inconvenience would dominate – but large wholesale balances).  The limit now exists wholly and solely because (a) governments monopolise physical currency issue, and (b) pay zero interest on physical currency.  Zero might not be much, but for a multi-million dollar fund, it is a lot more than -3 per cent (for the same credit risk).

Quite a few countries (including the euro area) are at or very near that floor already.  Other countries, including New Zealand, Australia, and the United States are not.   But even in those countries, a severe recession in the next few years would be likely to exhaust conventional monetary policy capacity (our Reserve Bank could cut by perhaps 2.5 percentage points, but it has often needed to cut by more than 5 percentage points in previous downturns).

Wolf isn’t apparently keen on doing anything about that, observing that a need for materially negative nominal official interest rates

would, to put in mildly, create a wasps’ nest of technical, financial and political problems.

Not nearly as many problems as doing nothing, and allowing persistently high unemployment for multiple years might create.

There are two broad options for creating more monetary policy space.   The first is to raise the inflation target (and reading a central banking magazine yesterday I noticed that a Swedish Deputy Governor is calling for exactly that), and the second –  and more reliable –  is to remove, or markedly ease, that near-zero effective lower bound.   No government or central bank has done so (and there are not overly complex ways of doing so), and that passivity –  apparently endorsed by Wolf – is increasing the risk of problems when the next serious downturn gets underway.  If interest rates can’t, for now, be cut far, people will quickly recognise that, not expect it, and adjust their behaviour, and asset holdings, accordingly.

Is there reason for unease about some of these options?  Perhaps.  If we were to allow short-term interest rates to go materially negative, no one knows how far they might eventually go.  There are good theoretical reasons to think not too far (human innovation hasn’t died, there are naturally productive (positive returns) assets (land or fruit trees) but no one knows with certainty.  Would it matter if interest rates went, and stayed, materially negative?  I’m not convinced it would, allow it would certainly be a symptom of something odd.   But such philosophising shouldn’t get in the way of actively preparing to handle the next serious downturn.  Neither central banks nor governments seem to be doing what they could on that score (and although the issue is a bit less immediately pressing in New Zealand, it is true here too).

Which brings me to the third limb of Wolf’s argument: “Fiscal alternatives look a safer bet”.   “We need more policy instruments he argues”.  In many respects, the rest of the article is a teaser for a conclusion around more aggressive use of fiscal policy.   (“More aggressive? perhaps Antipodean readers wonder, but as a chart in the article illustrates OECD net government debt as a share of GDP has trended quite strongly upwards in the last fifty years as, generally, has government spending.).  He asserts boldly:

If the private sector does not wish to invest, the government should decide to do so.

And yet who is “the government”, except a collective representation of the voters, themselves “the private sector” in one form or another.  There is no sense of trying to understand why the private sector might not choose to invest more heavily and then, if those things are in the gift of governments (tax, regulation, policy uncertainty or whatever), fix them.

And nothing at all on the near-certain “political problems” and constraints around the large scale and persistent (for it is something structural he is championing, not just a short-term cyclical response) aggressive use of fiscal policy, whether for consumption or investment.  Monetary policy has its problems, but if central bankers and politicians got on and fixed some of the regulatory (lower bound) obstacles, it would be a much more reliable tool to deploy.   At worse, even left-wingers (such as Wolf, and the Democratic economists he cites –  Laurence Summers, Olivier Blanchard, and Jason Furman) should want to have monetary instruments to hand, rather than some all-or-nothing wager on fiscal policy, when there is no political consensus at all (anywhere) on using fiscal policy in the ambitious way they suggest.

Wolf is right that central banks can’t deal with structural secular stagnation –  although they can do the important job of leaning against serious cyclical downturns, as they did in 2008/09. But even on the most optimistic of readings, it seems unlikely that aggregate fiscal policy is going to be able to either, whether for technical or political reasons.  And so-called secular stagnation should simply not be regarded as an acceptable excuse for poor productivity growth and weak investment in countries that are far from the productivity frontier, New Zealand pre-eminent (for how far it has drifted behind) among them.

In defence of capital charges (and higher public sector discount rates)

I don’t usually see the National Business Review but a copy of the latest issue turned up at home and I flicked through it on Saturday afternoon.  On page 2, I found a very strange article, in a column called (Tim) “Hunter’s Corner”, about health funding and (in particular) the application of the “capital charge” to DHBs.  It is, we are told, a “knuckleheaded approach” and should, in Tim Hunter’s view, be abolished.

Capital charges have been around for a long time now, since 1991 in fact.  Here is one description

The charge is levied on the net worth (assets minus liabilities) of departments and some Crown entities. The assets are assessed on the basis that they are valued in financial statements and may include buildings and other fixed assets, cash appropriated for depreciation or held as working capital, inventory, or receivables. The capital charge represents the opportunity cost of money – what the government can expect to earn in alternative investments entailing similar risk. It may be thought of as an internal rate of return on the government’s investment in its own entities.

and here is one articulation of the point of the charge

The capital charge has a dual purpose: it signals that capital is not costless and should be managed as would any other cost of production, and it spurs managers to include the cost of capital in comparing the cost of outputs produced by government entities with the cost of obtaining the outputs from outside suppliers. The charge puts internal contracting on the same footing as contracting out and encourages full cost recovery of outputs sold to governmental or private users.

It has always seemed eminently sensible to me.  Don’t charge for the cost of capital and government agencies will be incentivised to use lots of it, and to do things themselves that might be more efficiently provided by private sector firms (whose owners will, reasonably enough, expect to cover the cost of capital).   Without a capital charge, any hope of limiting those tendencies requires (even) more centralised adminstrative edicts.

I couldn’t see any information on The Treasury’s website about the current rate of captial charge, so I’ll take Mr Hunter’s word for the fact that it is “typically about 6-8%”.    Eight per cent (nominal) is the standard discount rate Treasury recommends for project evaluation.

So what bothers Mr Hunter?  His article seems to imply that capital charges squeeze the funds available to deliver health services to the public.  Waive them and suddenly DHBs will have more money.  Except that, were capital charges to be scrapped, one would expect to see an entirely-commensurate drop in central government funding to DHBs.  Of course, the Crown could decide it wanted to spend more on health service delivery but logically that is a quite different decision.  One can increase health spending with or without the capital charge.  All else equal, just scrapping the capital charge would increase the overall government deficit, and it would weaken the incentives in government agencies for capital to be used wisely and abstemiously.  Crown capital costs –  and that costs fall on citizens and taxpayers.

Hunter also seems worried about incentives

“…charging 6-8% on net assers provides an incentive to sell property and lease it back where the rental cost is below the capital charge”

Indeed, and so long as the capital charge is designed reasonably well, that is a feature not a bug.  Recall that the purpose was to help efficiently allocate resources and not artifically favour in-house solutions.

Getting still more specific, he goes on to argue that

“However, the actual cost to the Crown of the capital is more like 2% (the latest bond tender achieved a weighted average yield of 1.8%) and the chances of a DHB achieving a lease cost at or below that level are zero.  This means the capital charge incentivises the DHB to increase the actual cost to the Crown.”

It has to be pretty worrying that a senior business journalist thinks an appropriate measure of the Crown’s cost of capital is the rate it can raise debt at.

Just as for any private sector entity (businesses most obviously, but the concept applies more broadly), the cost of capital is better represented by some weighted some of the cost of debt and the cost of equity.    That is what The Treasury is trying to mimic in its recommended discount rates (and, I assume, in calculating rates of capital charge).  You can see the various assumptions (including the equity risk premium and leverage) laid out at the link.

The fact that the Crown doesn’t pay dividends and isn’t listed on the stock exchange doesn’t change the fact that equity capital has a cost.   When the government takes our money – and that is how the government raises equity, coercively through the tax system –  we can’t use that money for other things.   As citizens we, presumably, expect them to use that money wisely, and at least as well (for things at least as valuable) as the alternative options we have open to us.  Opportunity cost matters.    And, of course, the Crown’s cost of issuing debt isn’t just kept modest by the actual equity the Crown has accumulated, but by the ability of the Crown to raise our taxes whenever necessary to service the debt.   Lenders know that; in fact, they count on it.   And yet in evaluating state projects that option cost (to citizens) isn’t internalised.

I wrote a post a few years ago on the question of what price we should put on government projects.  Here are a couple of key paragraphs.

The Reserve Bank of Australia recently ran an interesting and accessible Bulletin article on the required hurdle rates of return that businesses use in Australia.  They report survey results suggesting that most firms in Australia use pre-tax nominal hurdle rates of return in a range of 10-16 per cent (the largest group fell in the range10-13 per cent, and the second largest in a 13-16 per cent band). Recall that nominal interest rates in Australia are typically a little lower than those in New Zealand, and their inflation target is a little higher than ours.   In other words, it would surprising if New Zealand firms didn’t use hurdle rates at least as high in nominal terms as those used by their Australia peers.     The RBA reports a standard finding that required rates of return were typically a little above the firms’ estimated weighted average cost of capital. The literature suggests a variety of reasons why firms might adopt that approach, including as a buffer against potential biases in the estimated benefits used in evaluating projects.

As a citizen, it is not clear why I would want to government to use scarce capital much more profligately than private businesses might do. I use the word “profligately” advisedly – using a lower required rate of return puts less value on citizens’ capital than they do themselves in running businesses that they themselves control.  And if the disciplines of the market are imperfect for private businesses (as they are), the disciplines on public sector decision-makers to use resources wisely and effectively are far far weaker. Fletcher Challenge took some pretty bad investment decisions in the 1980s and 1990s: its shareholders and managers paid the price and the firm disappeared from the scene (along with many more reckless “investment companies”). The New Zealand government, architect of Think Big debacle, lives on – citizens were the poorer, but ministers and officials paid no price.

And here was a chart from J P Morgan that I used in a recent post

hurdle rates

I also noted

If anything, there are several reason why governments should be using higher discount rates than private citizens would do:

  • Governments raise equity (“power to tax”) coercively rather voluntarily, and effectively impose near unlimited liability on citizens.
  • Governments are subject to fewer competitive pressures and market disciplines to minimise the risk of resources being misapplied.
  • Many government investment projects exaggerate the exposure of citizens to the economic cycles (the projects go bad when the economy goes bad)

The last of those isn’t really relevant to use of capital in the health sector, but the other two certainly are.  They represent what looks like a pretty good case for requiring something well above 8 per cent to used in evaluating public sector capital projects, both when seeking new funding from the government, and when making ongoing management choices within organisations.

Note that none of this is about taking a view on the appropriate level of health services the public sector should provide, it is simply (but importantly) about helping to get closer to recognising the true costs and risks associated with the capital devoted to funding these services.

There is no perfect system for allocating capital, whether within a private multinational company, or within a government.  “Perfect” is never the relevant benchmark.  But if the capital charge regime isn’t perfect –  and that is almost inevitable –  we are materially better off with it than without it.   I hope the Minister of Health pays no attention to the siren call from Tim Hunter to scrap capital charges, at least as they apply in the health system.    There is probably a stronger case to scrap DHBs themselves, but even if that were done much the same challenges around the efficient use of capital, getting the best mix of labour and capital, would still face health system managers and those funding them.   Capital costs, and those (true) costs are quite high, especially when politicians and public officials are making the decisions, and rarely face sufficiently strong incentives to utilise capital as efficiently as possible.

Highly productive countries tend to do more social spending

Earlier in the week I saw somewhere some charts drawn from the OECD’s Social Expenditure database, so I went to have a look.  In this database, and an associated report, the OECD attempts to gather reasonably consistent cross-country estimates of (what they describe as) social expenditure.  In this case, the numbers exclude spending on education (other than early childhood spending).

This is the first chart,

socex1

This is direct government spending on such things (health, unemployment and disability benefits, active labour market policies, age pensions and the like).   There probably isn’t much very surprising in the 2018 ranking themselves, although a few things caught my eye:

  • in among the European countries with above-median spending Japan now appears.  Not that long ago Japan had relatively low rates of government spending (share of GDP) but now it is higher than all the English-speaking countries,
  • among those English-speaking countries the Irish numbers are very misleadingly low because of the way features of the corporate tax regime have led measured GDP in Ireland to far outstrip the “true” level of economic activity occurring in Ireland, let alone the income accruing to Irish residents.
  • New Zealand was very close to being the median country in 2018.
  • and, whether or not one approves of such high levels of social spending (and I’m pretty uneasy) it should not be overlooked that among the nine largest spenders (share of GDP), seven are in the top-tier OECD group for average labour productivity (exceptions being Finland and Italy).       I’m not offering any thoughts about causation (and other very high productivity countries – US, Ireland, and the Netherlands –  below the median), but it remains a data point one has to take seriously.

And, of course, the other thing that is striking is how much social spending as a share of GDP has increased.  Perhaps 20 per cent of OECD countries have such spending a bit lower or much the same as in 1990 (New Zealand is one of them –  in 1990 the NZS eligibility age was still 60 and the unemployment rate was rising rapidly in the midst of our disinflation and restructuring), but in most countries there has been an increase even since 1990.   For the countries for which 1960 data were available, the increases have been very large in every single country –  although Japan (still pretty poor in 1960) stands out.

Interesting as these charts of direct public outlays are, they can be only part of the picture.  If the government compels you to save, or compels you to buy medical insurance, or offers tax treatments that incentivise such private spending, the differences between public and private spending can quickly get rather blurry.  Switzerland, for example, has a low share of public social spending but requires everyone to take out medical insurance.  That might, or might not, be a better system, but it means that low-ish direct public spending numbers don’t always tell a simple small-government (or self-reliant) story.   This isn’t a big issue for New Zealand, but here is the OECD’s attempt to reflect some of these different institutional arrangements and produce some bottom line estimates of net social expenditures (apologies that it is a little hard to read –  you can click here for a more legible version).  The orange dots are the ones to focus on.

socexp3

On this measure, the Netherlands and the US move a long way to the left (on the chart), only just behind France.  Switzerland (and Australia) also move a long way to the left.  Of the English-speaking countries, only Ireland now ranks below New Zealand, and that is just because of the tax-system distortion to the GDP numbers (done as a share of net national income, Ireland would spend more on social expenditure than New Zealand).

There are all sorts of quibbles possible about these numbers, including how safe it is to simply add them up (to what extent are the components really apples and oranges?), but it is probably salutary to note that there is now a stronger alignment between income/productivity levels and net social expenditure as a share of GDP than was evident in the first chart.  Countries towards the right of the chart are (almost entirely) the poorer and less productive OECD countries, and countries to the left of the chart tend to be the richer/more productive OECD countries (the outliers being Greece and Portugal).    Whether or not one approves of high rates of social spending, it is at least consistent with the story that much higher productivity gives countries, and individuals, options (practical and political) that poorer and less productive countries don’t have.   That might be something for our political officeholders –  increasingly indifferent to New Zealand’s productivity failure –  to reflect on.

And don’t think you can put the cart before the horse – in general, raising social expenditure won’t do anything much to raise (and may even lower) medium-term average economywide productivity.