Nurses, pay equity, and the real structural problems

I’ve heard or read a couple of strange stories in the last day or so about the nurses’ trade union making the case for a “pay equity” settlement for their members.

Of course, the very notion of “pay equity” settlements is bizarre, fit only for somewhere like the old Soviet Union.  Some government officials decree that job x should be paid the same as job y, as if the price of a banana should be adminstratively and arbitrarily set equal to, say, the price of a kiwifruit because the two might have (say) similar nutritional value.

But what interested me were two lines being used by the nurses in support of the view that they were underpaid (neither line seemed to have much to do with the false equivalency of “pay equity”, but were rather intended to support the claim that nurses were –  absolutely –  underpaid).

The first, reported here, was this

“In Australia, nurses can be paid as much as $90,000 as a base rate with penal and on-call rates as well. The limit in New Zealand sits around $68,000.”

Last I looked, real GDP per hour worked in Australia (in comparable – PPP –  terms) was 41 per cent higher than in New Zealand.  That is the best aggregate measure of labour productivity.  You’d expect wages and salaries for most jobs to be higher in Australia than they are in New Zealand.   That appears to be so for nurses.   A larger share of New Zealand’s population is in paid employment than is the case in Australia, so the difference in per capita income is a bit smaller, but still just over 30 per cent.  In material terms, Australia is now a richer and more successful country than New Zealand is.  Those gaps keep (slowly) getting wider.

Because of the somewhat-common labour market between the two countries that creates some specific problems for New Zealand.  Plenty of people will look across the Tasman, weigh up the pros and cons of the heat, the snakes and spiders, and the challenges and opportunities of big cities, and move.    Since our somewhat-common labour market applies across the board (not just, say, to public sector nurses), it isn’t a problem we can fix by simply agreeing to all pay ourselves more.  Those sorts of outcomes have to be “earned”  –  not about individuals working harder, but about the economy as a whole finding better and remunerative opportunties, lifting earning possibilities for everyone.  Do it enough, and one day that might even be a net flow of New Zealanders coming back from Australia (Ireland managed it, it can be done).

I’m sure the Nurses Organisation is better connected to people at the top of the government than I am, so I can only urge them to suggest to their friends and allies who currently hold office that economywide productivity might be elevated quite a long way up the list of government priorities (in the Labour Party “Our Plan for New Zealand” brochure dropped in my letter box the other day it featured not at all).  Remind them, perhaps, that for decades New Zealand has been failing on this count, reducing successive governments to pretending to a success that just hasn’t been achieved.  In consequence, wages are much lower than they really should be, and we’ve been more limited than anyone would have liked in dealing with all sort of other social problems.

(Of course, from a Nurses Organisation perspective the strategy I’m proposing would fail any sort of cost-benefit assessment: neither National nor Labour show any sign of being seriously interested in doing what it might take to generate much better productivity and incomes, and (by contrast) the nurses seem to have the government wrapped around their little finger on the pay-equity path to improving their own position. But I’m sure nurses are public-spirited people, and they have children too, not all of whom will choose to be nurses.)

The other strand of the nurses’ argument was a bit closer to home. A Wellington hospital nurse was quoted as saying

Only a quarter of the nurses she worked with lived within walking distance of their hospital.  The result was that only a quarter of the nurses Ms Hopkinson worked with lived within walking distance of their hospital.

“We can’t afford to live in the communities we nurse in, we’re priced out of these neighbourhoods.”   12 years ago when she started, nurses lived in the central city, but that was no longer the case.

“They’re commuting from Featherston, from up the Kapiti Coast, Upper Hutt; they’re a long way away and they won’t be able to make it to us after an earthquake.”

Even in Wellington, it did seem a bit of a stretch to argue for a pay rise so that nurses could walk to the hospital when the 1 in 300 year earthquake hits.  The present value of the cost of that possible post-quake complication will be pretty small indeed.

Now, as it happens I do live within walking distance of Wellington hospital. It is a pleasant middling suburb, and when I was younger I knew lots of nurses who lived in the neighbourhood, attended our church etc etc.  It was close to their work and convenient.  As I’ve noted previously, I bought my first (three bedroom, 30 year old) house in this same suburb 30 years ago –  actually bought it from a teacher who was moving to Wanganui where housing was more affordable (it was near the peak of the then-boom).  The Reserve Bank’s inflation calculator tells me I paid about $296000 in today’s money for that house.

Real wages and productivity have increased since then.  Real GDP per hour worked has risen by a third, so roughly speaking spending $400000 on a house today would bear a similar relationship to incomes as $300000 then.

You cannot buy any house in Island Bay –  still less a three bedroom house, 30 year old, decent-sized section, garage etc – for $400000.  As it happens, earlier this week a real estate agent sent me a several page list of sales in the area in the last few months.  The cheapest property sold was a unit with no land at all, and 60 square metres of house: that went for $400000.  The next two cheapest ($507K and $570K) were also units and had 60 and 70 square metres respectively.  The cheapest house that looks roughly comparable (size, age, but much smaller section) to that first house of mine went for $805000.   The median price across those particular 37 properties was $960000.

It is insane.  No wonder nurses can’t afford to buy anything decent reasonably close to Wellington Hospital (there are slightly cheaper suburbs, but they’ll all have had much the same escalation).   It is not that nurses are underpaid.  And it isn’t just the nurses.  Anyone in a moderate-income job –  especially if there is only one income, or one fulltime and one part-time income –  will really struggle.  And, much as I quite like Island Bay, it isn’t Fendalton or Remuera or St Heliers –  yes, we have a beach too, but even with warming sea temperatures the sea is always more ‘refreshing’ than inviting.

It simply isn’t an issue about nurses, or nurses’ pay.  It is a straightforward consequence of vicious choices that a series of central and local governments have made to mess up urban housing markets.  Government has failed, very badly.  And if it perhaps doesn’t impinge too terribly on the children of the wealthy, it greatly restricts the options of most everyone else looking to get into the housing market, nurses included.  They are, to put it, colloquially, stuffed.  And if that isn’t you or your children yet, it will be mine in a decade’s time.  (Rents are not my primary focus, but in an age in which real interest rates are at record low, real rents should also be lower than ever.)

I’m sure the Nurses Organisation is better connected to people at the top of the government than I am, so I can only urge them to suggest to their friends and allies who currently hold office that fixing the urban land market might be elevated quite a long way up the list of government priorities (in the Labour Party “Our Plan for New Zealand” brochure dropped in my letter box the other day it featured not at all).   Nice Mr Twyford appeared to understand the issue when he was in Opposition, but there has been as little action from him in government as there was from the class enemies of the Nurses Organisation, the previous government.   Remind him, perhaps, of those fast-growing cities across swathes of middle America where good houses really are still affordable.  There is no shortage of land in New Zealand, not even in Wellington (except to the extent the Nurses Organisation friends at the Wellington City Council make it artifically so.   Do not just paper over the cracks, but fix the problem at source.

(Of course, from a Nurses Organisation perspective the strategy I’m proposing would fail any sort of cost-benefit assessment: serious land-use reform from either National or Labour still seems like a long shot (by contrast) the nurses seem to have the government wrapped around their little finger on the pay-equity path to improving their own position. But I’m sure nurses are public-spirited people, and they have children too, not all of whom will choose to be nurses. All of whom will eventually want houses.)

From any sensible policy perspective, so-called pay equity is just daft.  From the perspective of any particular group of workers, perhaps it is the fastest path ahead –  zero-sum game (well, worse) across the whole economy, but beneficial for those particular individuals. But, probably without really being aware of it, the Nurses Organisation put their finger on two really big symptoms of policy failure in New Zealand –  productivity/earnings and housing – that affect almost everyone.   While pursuing their own short-term self-interest, I would urge them to add their voice to the call for serious structural reform in these two areas.   They need it.  We all need it.  Political parties, meanwhile, keep on failing to deliver.

Working hours

The other day, for some reason, I was looking back at the records of this blog, and got curious about which posts had had the most specific views.  It turned out that for some reason (I think it got linked to overseas) this early post – about how New Zealand’s economy had done relative to other advanced countries since 2007 – was the “winner”.  Rereading the post, I lit upon this chart

hoursanglo

As I noted then

Hours worked are an input (which comes at a cost) not an output, so higher hours worked aren’t automatically a good thing.  There are good dimensions to it, if (for example) people are coming off long-term welfare back into the workforce, or older people are keen and able to stay in the workforce.  Hours worked per capita also gets affected by different demographic patterns –  they will be lower in countries with lots of under-15s or over 70s.  But, equally, part of the story of New Zealand in the last 25 years is that we have managed to limit the deterioration in our GDP per capita, relative to that in other countries, by working more.  Productivity would be better.

Over the full period since 1990, here is the change in hours worked per capita for New Zealand and the other Anglo countries, countries with reasonably similar demographics to our own.

1990 was the year just prior to a recession in many countries, including New Zealand, and is a not uncommon jumping-off date for looking at the experience of New Zealand since the reform era.

Since the post was almost four years old, I was curious whether anything much had changed.     Here is the same chart, using data from the Total Economy Database maintained by the Conference Board.

hours per capita 2019

Something of a recovery in Ireland, but otherwise not much.     The difference between New Zealand and the other countries in the chart isn’t mainly a cyclical story, but even in the last decade a larger proportion of New Zealand’s per capita GDP growth has come from working more hours (per capita).

hours per capita 2019 2

(Interestingly, the UK labour productivity growth record over that decade has been even worse than that of New Zealand.)

I had a quick look at a wider group of advanced economies (OECD + EU + Singapore and Taiwan).   For the full period since 1990 there isn’t complete data for all countries (gaps mostly the former Communist countries of central and eastern Europe), but of the 32 countries for which there is data, hours worked per capita dropped by 1 per cent for the median country (up 16 per cent in New Zealand).    For the more recent period, where there is full data, the median country spent 2 per cent fewer hours per capita working, while in New Zealand median hours per capita increased by 2 per cent.

(For those interested, there is a group of countries  (Singapore, Hungary, Israel, Chile, Mexico, Poland) where hours per capita have increased materially more than in New Zealand over the last decade.)

I am not trying to draw any particular policy conclusions from these numbers, just to highlight them.  And it is not as if New Zealanders had been leisured people at the start of the period and were only now getting back to advanced country norms.  In fact, by 2017 we had among the highest hours worked per capita of any of the 40+ countries in my sample (Singapore is off-the-charts high, and South Korea comes second).

As a reminder, hours worked are an input not an output.  High (or increasing) hours worked is generally not some achievement to be celebrated, although there can be some caveats to that.

If the unemployment rate had been particularly high at the start of the period, one might genuinely welcome it dropping. Involuntary unemployment is, almost by defintion, a bad thing.  But when my comparisons started (in 1990) New Zealand’s unemployment rate was about the middle of the pack for the Anglo countries in the charts (by 2007 we had the lowest unemployment rate of any of them).

If you are uneasy that the welfare system accommodates too many people not working who should be providing for themselves, then successful welfare reforms might increase average hours worked per capita and that might then be regarded as a good thing –  whether fiscally, socially or whatever.  The proportion of working age adults on welfare benefits (ie including the unemployed) did drop quite bit in the 1990s and early 2000s.   But it was 10 per cent in 2007 and it was still 10 per cent in 2018.

Tax system provisions (or the interaction with pension rules) can also deter people from working when they might otherwise choose to.  New Zealand has a public pension system that specifically does not deter people from staying in the workforce after age 65 if they so prefer, and between 1990 and 2007 we increased the NZS eligibility age by a whole five years.  Personally, I think that was a desirable change, but the fact remains that high and rising hours worked per capita has not been a complement to some stellar productivity performance and improving opportunities.

In aggregate, more New Zealanders have been working more hours to –  in effect –  offset some of the relative income loss that our disappointing productivity performance would otherwise have led to.    As a country, our tenuous grip on upper-income status (really not much more than upper middle-income these days) is sustained only by working ever harder. That might be, in some sense, an appropriate second-best (for the individuals making those choices, reluctantly or otherwise). It is not obviously any sort of first-best outcome.

Terms and conditions surely?

With various media reports around – and numerous annoyed locals –  about Wellington public transport operators failing to deliver contracted services (cancelling services) because they haven’t (note the choice of word) recruited and retained sufficient drivers, perhaps it is time to haul up from the archives a couple of posts I wrote early last year on these and related issues.  Those posts were focused on bus drivers, while the latest stories feature both buses and commuter trains.  I see that, once again, there is talk of overseas recruitment.

This was my first post, sparked by reports that one company was wanting to recruit abroad to fill its vacancies.

Extracts:

What prompted this post was the story this week about a bus company – Ritchies –  wanting immigration approval to recruit foreign bus drivers.  Bus drivers don’t make the list MBIE released of occupations for which there were more than 100 (so-called) Essential Skills visas issued last year, but these occupations were some that did.

Essential skills visa approvals 2016/17
Truck Driver (General) 400
Winery Cellar Hand 396
Waiter 345
Sales Assistant (General) 320
Personal Care Assistant 289
Massage Therapist 259
Baker 231
Painting Trades Worker 220
Builder’s Labourer 185
Kitchenhand 181
Fast Food Cook 118
Farm, Forestry and Garden Workers nec 116
Bar Attendant 102

On the face of it, such roles don’t seem notably more (or less) taxing than being a bus driver.  It is a responsible role, but not one requiring huge amounts of skills or training (according to the story I linked to above 6 to 8 weeks training suffices).    It isn’t the sort of role one naturally thinks of when officials and ministers talk about skills-focused immigration programmes.

The case Ritchies make is that they can’t find locals –  New Zealanders, or people already here –  to fill new roles.

Auckland Transport awarded Ritchies Coachlines the contract to run buses on the North Shore from September.

But the company said so far it had not been able to find enough drivers locally and had asked Immigration New Zealand if it could bring in 110 of them from overseas to plug the gap.

And I’m sure that is correct.  If you pay low enough wages, it is hardly surprising that people with other New Zealand options aren’t lining up to work for you.

At least on the union’s telling

“The problem with Ritchies is that they pay over a dollar an hour less than the industry so their retention rates are minimal. People get trained up then they’ll go to other bus companies where the rates are better. Again Ritchies brings it upon themselves.

On the face of it, it looks like another case of a service contract won largely on the basis of (assumed) low labour costs.

The company more or less acknowledges the point

Mr Todd said the company would continue trying to recruit locally but only had until late June before it would need to look overseas for drivers including in Fiji, Samoa and the Philippines.

He admitted the $20.20 an hour it paid drivers would be difficult to get by on in Auckland but said this was the budget it had to work with.

“Lets face it, any job in the world, if you pay enough, you’ll get people to do it but…those costs will have to be passed on.”

I don’t really see the specific company as the bogey-man here.  They are operating in an environment –  bidding for public contracts –  where the overall level of funding seems to implicitly rely on access to very cheap labour (in this case, according to the company, from Fiji, Samoa, and the Philippines –  the jobs presumably not being attractive to bus drivers from the advanced world, since New Zealand is now a low income advanced country).

The same goes, more or less, for some other public-funded industries. Rest-homes, for example, rely heavily on immigrant labour from poorer countries: the existing level of rest-home subsidies constrain their options pretty severely.  No individual firm has a great deal of market power.  But the overall market is nonetheless skewed by policy choices successive governments have made about access to immigrant labour to fill what are mostly quite modestly-skilled roles.

It is why we need not small tweaks at the margins –  should or shouldn’t bus drivers (waiters, kitchenhands, or whatever) be on the approved list – but an overhaul of the entire immigration system.

But as part of that we should:

  • establish a strong presumption against use of unskilled immigrant labour (which mostly –  although not entirely –  competes with and tends to drive down returns to domestic unskilled labour), and
  • get ministers and officials out of the game of determining which specific roles people can and can’t hire short-term immigrant workers for.

To that end, I’ve argued previously for a system in which Essential Skills visas are granted on these terms:

a. Capped in length of time (a single maximum term of three years, with at least a year overseas before any return on a subsequent work visa, with this provision to apply regardless of skill level).

b. Subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum.

 

And this was the follow-up post from a couple of weeks later.

Extracts

In a typical market, there aren’t sustained physical shortages –  the price adjusts.  If in this case the price (driver wages) wasn’t adjusting –  if anything there was a suggestion Ritchies would be paying less than the previous operator –  it suggested the plan was to close the gaps another way (bringing in more relatively unskilled people from abroad.)    Ritchies has moral agency in that –  they made a choice to bid that way, and should live with the consequences if it doesn’t work (if, for some reason, MBIE turns down their application to bring in relatively unskilled workers from abroad).   But I didn’t want to focus on the individual company, since they are responding to incentives set up by various arms of government –  Auckland Transport offering the contracts, and even more so MBIE (as part of the New Zealand government) in making immigrant labour relatively readily available for what are really quite unskilled roles.    And it isn’t as if Ritchies is the only company operating this way.   Another operator has won most of the bus routes in Wellington, to take over in July, apparently operating on very similar assumptions about access to new immigrant labour.

I had some comments directly from people involved in the industry, on both sides.  In substance they were making quite similar points.  As one observed, demand growth (in this case for bus drivers) can always be met by expanded capacity (immigration) or higher prices (or wages).  They went on to argue that the ability of some companies to import drivers meant they won contracts, and that it was as clear a case of immigration driving down wages as you could find.

Of suburban driver jobs, I observed last week

It is a responsible role, but not one requiring huge amounts of skills or training (according to the story I linked to above 6 to 8 weeks training suffices).    It isn’t the sort of role one naturally thinks of when officials and ministers talk about skills-focused immigration programmes.

One driver confirmed that training story noting that his employer

…took me on with just a car licence. They spent about 8 weeks training me up and paid for the costs of getting a heavy traffic licence and a P endorsement (essentially a “fit and proper” test.)

In terms of (price-based) evidence of labour market pressures, this driver observed that over five years or so his basic hourly rate has increased by only around 1 per cent per annum (if so, that would be less than the average rate of CPI inflation, so a reduction in real wage rates).

There seem to be a variety of ways to spin the story as to how much bus drivers are being paid, and what the new entrants (Auckland and Wellington) are offering or planning to offer.   …..[But] there doesn’t really seen to be much dispute that the new operators –  claiming an inability to find sufficient local labour –  are not offering drivers more than the current operators.  Indeed, the general sense seems to be that pay for equivalent effort would be less than at present.

And in a typical, well-functioning, market, when demand exceeds supply –  and not just for a day or two  –  the price of the product or service in question will rise (not fall).   Quite how much the rise will be will depend on the elasticities of supply and demand –  maybe a lot more potential drivers would emerge for slightly higher wages (or maybe not), and maybe bus patronage would drop away sharply with slightly higher fares (wages are by far the largest component in bus company costs) or maybe not.  But you wouldn’t expect to see the relevant price –  bus driver wages –  under downward pressure when there is incipient excess demand for drivers.

(It is not as if the outgoing operators have had abundant labour.  As one correspondent noted “Go wellington have about 340 drivers for the current contract but even with huge active recruitment and training from scratch they only get 100 new per annum which is as many as they lose”.)

In fact, the way the bus driver labour market exists seems to be possible only because our governments –  present and past –  have opened up a channel through which supply can be increased, at or below the current price.  Open up incipient excess demand at current –  or lower –  than prevailing wages, and then get in workers on a (so-called) Essential Skills visa.

Bus drivers aren’t an occupation that appears on the official “skill shortage list” (if they were there would no further labour market test involved for any firm wanting to hire foreign labour).  Occupations such as bricklayers, plasterers, bakers, and jockeys are on the list.   But not being on the list doesn’t mean bus companies can’t hire foreign drivers.  There are just more hoops to jump through –  which is why employers who think they might have multiple vacancies (like the bus companies) are strongly urged (by MBIE) to seek an “approval in principle”.

MBIE’s employer guide is here.   You’ll see that for unskilled or modestly skilled jobs, part of the required test is to check with WINZ as to whether there are New Zealanders seeking work they can refer to the employer.   Bus drivers are in that category…….

That looks mildly encouraging.  You can’t just offer the minimum wage (for a job in New Zealand typically paying $5 an hour more than that) and expect to get your approval in principle to bring in foreign workers.   But if your wage contract is a little different from other operators (perhaps base rates are a bit higher, but other payments are lower?)  or even if you can find one other company somewhere in the country paying the same overall rate, you have to wonder (based on total numbers approved if nothing else) how rigorous MBIE is in enforcing the test.  And why, for example, it isn’t given more prominence in their guide to employers?

Because, you see, MBIE is really keen that firms hire foreigners.    In fact, they have whole website pages devoting to extolling the virtues of immigrant labour –  so much so that one has to wonder whether they really see themselves working in the interests of New Zealand citizens.    Employers are told

“Hiring migrants is a great way for you to maintain and grow your business”

And then the first item under that “Why hire migrants?” employers are told

Migrant workers can do more than just fill a gap in your staffing. They bring with them an international perspective and connections, provide support to up-skill local employees, add diversity, and generally can help businesses to stay ahead of their competition.

The “international perspective and connections” being oh so important for bus drivers, bricklayers, or even the cafe or retail managers or aged care nurses (occupations topping the work visa approval list).    There is no hint for example that there might be any disadvantages –  eg lower returns to New Zealanders in similar occupations, or the simple fact that, in aggregate, migrants add more to demand pressures (including for labour) than they do to supply in the short-term.

If we are going to have government officials administering something like a mass market Essential Skills visa scheme, and deciding who does and doesn’t get approval, surely a key aspect of any labour market test should be something along these lines?

“has the effective wage or salary rate for this occupation risen materially faster than wages and salaries more generally in New Zealand over the past couple of years?”

If not, how can you seriously use the term “skill shortage”?    Even if wages in a particular occupation have risen faster than the norm, it takes time for locals to respond and shift occupations, so one wouldn’t necessarily want to jump at the first sign of a bit of real wage inflation in a particular occupation, but if after a couple of years the pressures were persistent then some sort of Approval in Principle for temporary migrant labour –  at wages at or above those now prevailing in the domestic market – might make some sense as a shock absorber.  But MBIE seems perennially averse to markets adjusting in ways the generate higher real wages, even though that outcome is one core part of what we look for from a successful economy.  Successive Ministers of Immigration –  from both main parties –  seem to buy in to the story, and believe that central planning by them and MBIE bureaucrats is going to work better than the price system.  It wasn’t a good system in the Soviet Union, and it isn’t here.

I can’t see a reason why we should be giving Essential Skills visas for suburban bus drivers, and we shouldn’t be creating a system where firms are encouraged to bid in the expectation that they can use that system, rather than pay a market-clearing wage for New Zealand resident workers.

More generally, I don’t think there is particular merit in a system in which officials are picking and choosing which firms can and can’t hire short-term workers.   As I noted in my previous post I favour something along these lines

To that end, I’ve argued previously for a system in which Essential Skills visas are granted on these terms:

a. Capped in length of time (a single maximum term of three years, with at least a year overseas before any return on a subsequent work visa, with this provision to apply regardless of skill level).

b. Subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum.

If an employer really can’t find a local hire for a modestly-skilled (or unskilled) position, they’d be able to get someone from overseas, but only by paying (to the Crown) a minimum annual fee of $20000.  It is pretty powerful incentive then to train someone local, or increase the salary on offer to attract someone local who can already do the job. If you can’t get a local to do a job for $40000 per annum, there might well be plenty of people to do it for $50000 (and still cheaper than paying the ongoing annual fee for a work visa employee).

There are lots of operational details that would need to be refined, but as a starting point it seems like a pretty attractive system.  In the current situation, if bus companies really can’t find New Zealanders to drive, they could hire foreigners, but would have to pay an additional annual fee to the Crown of $20000 for each approval (but also wouldn’t otherwise have to jump through bureaucratic hoops, legal fees etc).  I’d be really surprised if there were any bus drivers then on Essential Skills visas or –  reprising the list from my previous post – kitchenhands, waiters, or massage therapists.  But, you never know.   If the market price adjusted that much that it was still better to hire a foreigner, that price adjustment might be a pretty compelling argument for a rather more genuine “skill shortage” than what we have now.

Perhaps in the end, MBIE won’t allow the bus companies to hire immigrant labour to fill the vacancies.  I’d welcome that, but the bigger issue isn’t any particular role, but how the system as a whole is designed and operated.

That’s the end of the extracts from last year’s posts.  There are lots of words there, but surely the bottom line is that for any modestly-skilled occupation for which there isn’t a sudden totally unexpected change in demand (and the number of people wanting to use public transport just doesn’t fluctuate that much), persistent “shortages” tell you more about the wages and other terms and conditions being offered than they do about any real sense of unavailable labour?  People will typically pursue the best opportunities available to them.  Make bus (or train) driving somewhat more attractive –  which is what the market signals are suggesting should happen –  and some more people will be interested in, perhaps even keen on, driving a bus or a train.

And lets not allow the immigration system to be used to avoid responding to domestic labour market signals, especially in non-tradables parts of the economy.  There is a place for immigration –  a reasonably generous approach to refugees, and an openness to some really highly-skilled people who might want to settle here (probably quite a small modest number given distance, modest income relative to other advanced countries, and the revealed preference experience –  only a small proportion of our actual migrants have been particularly highly-skilled).

(And, to be clear, the overall wage effects of high immigration are ambiguous, in part because in aggregate immigration boosts demand more than supply in the short run, and there are repeated waves of migrants, and thus repeated short-runs.  I am not one of those arguing that immigration policy is driving wages systematically down.  This post is about the impact in specific localised markets, and even more about the rules regarding labour market tests.)

Breathtaking indifference

On TVNZ’s Q&A programme yesterday, the Minister for Workplace Relations, Iain Lees-Galloway was interviewed.

The Minister and his government are keen to increase union membership and are putting in place further significant increases in the minimum wage.

From his interview yesterday, here is part of the Minister’s story

….all the evidence from around the world shows us that when you have more people covered by collective agreements, that helps to drive wages up. It also helps to drive productivity, and yes, we’re a government that’s focused on transforming our economy into one that’s productive, more sustainable.

It almost invites one of those Tui ads.  We’ll come back to wages in a moment, but just consider for moment that claim that there is causal relationship between steps to increase union membership (and collective bargaining) and higher (economywide) productivity.  It is a shame the interviewer didn’t push the Minister on the point, but his comments suggest that he really has little idea what productivity is.   It is about businesses, old and new, finding new products, new markets, new ways of doing things, new ways of combining capital and labour in ways that successfully take on the world.   I’m not suggesting that unions can never play a constructive role –  although they can also play a destructive one.  But the Minister offers no credible story for how a greater role for unions in New Zealand will make any material positive difference to the ability of firms operating in New Zealand to take on the world from here.

That is especially so because he is quite open that his goal to shift the balance in the labour market, so that a larger share of GDP flows to labour.

CORIN So the purpose of these changes is to boost union power.

IAIN Well, it’s to get a better share of the economy. We’ve talked about having an economy that’s more inclusive, where working people can actually bargain for a fair share of a prosperous economy. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.

I’m not going to debate what is “fair” here, but as a matter of arithmetic, more for one side means less for the other, unless somehow the size of the cake itself increases faster.  And since firms are the ones making the investment and location decisions, it isn’t self-evidently obvious that increased union power would lead to faster rate of real GDP growth.

In support of his claims, the Minister attempted to use the example of Australia.

If you look at the wage gap between us and Australia, that has broadened over the last 30 years. Australia didn’t dismantle their collective bargaining framework in the same way that New Zealand did. That’s part of the story, but absolutely, we’re strongly of the view that people not being in a strong bargaining position has meant they haven’t been able to make the demands on the employers.

Reading that, I had hazy memories of some posts last year (eg here) drawing attention to an increase in the labour share of GDP in the last 15 years.    But what about the comparison with Australia?

Here is the change in the labour share of GDP (less net production taxes and subsidies) since 1990.  Why 1990?  Well, the Minister talked about the last 30 years, but also explicitly highlighted the labour market reforms most of which date to 1991.   I’ve shown the numbers not just for New Zealand and Australia, but also for the other three Anglo countries.

lab share may 18

New Zealand is the median country.  The labour share of income fell a bit less here than in Australia.   If one takes the comparison just over the terms of the last two governments, so starting from 1999, the labour share of income here has increased – and in each of these other Anglo countries, it either fell or increased less than the increase in New Zealand.

I don’t want to make very much of pretty small differences.  But the numbers just don’t seem to support the Minister’s case.  And to revert to productivity, Australia has had one of the faster rate of productivity growth (real GDP per hour worked) among the older OECD countries since 1990.  I’m not aware of any evidence suggesting that collective bargaining and the role of unions has been a material (positive) part of that story.   A rather more common story is to emphasise the role of the rapid increase in Australia’s mineral exports.

The interviewer moved onto minimum wages

CORIN You talk about balance. How fair is it for a business, let’s say a business making a product that’s sold globally, with 25 staff, to now face the higher minimum wage; they lose their fire-at-will rights; they’re going to face much stronger unions, more compliance costs; they are operating in a global marketplace; they’ve lost their flexibility; how fair is it for that business?

IAIN I don’t think they’ve lost any flexibility at all. And operating in a global market means that businesses need to be resilient. They need to be able to work with the different market forces. Now, if a small change to the minimum wage is going to be that detrimental to them, they don’t sound resilient, and so what we actually need is to signal to businesses, as we have done, what our plans are for the minimum wage and for our other industrial law changes, give them an opportunity, if they don’t feel like their business model can operate in those in that environment–

CORIN So tough luck if they can’t make that work?

IAIN To give the opportunity to transition. Because we need businesses to transition into an environment where in a high-skill, high-wage economy, they are able to operate.

CORIN I think there’ll be plenty of people watching this morning who run small businesses, very frustrated and will be yelling at the TV, saying their margins are small; they’re battling away; they’re trying to employ Kiwis. They will see these changes, and certainly Business NZ is arguing that this week, as being unfair and unreasonable.

IAIN Look a lot of businesses come and go, regardless of any changes the government makes. So, yeah, most start-ups, for instance, don’t actually last beyond a couple of years. That’s the nature of doing business. What we as a government have to do is make sure there is an environment in which new businesses can develop; new jobs can be created; and as thing change for people, new opportunities become available for them. That, I think is the most important thing – that we have a strong economy where if businesses do come and go over time, which they do, that there are new opportunities for people to take up.

Now, no one is going to dispute that firms come and go, that is the nature –  the desirable nature –  of a market economy.  But the indifference of the Minister here is all but breathtaking.   His attitude appears to be that somehow we don’t want firms that can’t manage to turn a profit paying what has already been one of the highest minimum wages (relative to median wages, or to the overall productivity of the economy) anywhere.

He mightn’t, but the people who hold those jobs at present might have a rather different attitude.  Sure, they’d prefer a higher wage, all else equal.  Who wouldn’t?  But that isn’t the scenario the Minister paints.  It isn’t even the usual line the advocates of higher minimum wages run, that somehow hardly any jobs will be lost.  The Minister seems to recognise that some firms will be forced out of business, and he just doesn’t care.  Because amid all the blather about “new opportunities” and the earlier rhetoric about “transforming our economy into one that’s productive”, there is nothing in what the Minister is saying –  or what his leaders and colleagues have been saying –  to give anyone any confidence that government policy is about to transform our underwhelming productivity performance.

It is true, of course, that there might be some small measurement effects from big increases in the minimum wage.  If some people are priced out of work altogether they will tend, on average, to be the least productive workers.  Average productivity of those who remain may be a little higher as a result. But that is no comfort to anyone, and doesn’t earn New Zealand as a whole better opportunities in the wider world.   In some cases, firms may even respond to higher minimum wages by mechanising more, but again that isn’t a gain for New Zealanders as a whole –  but rather a second-best response (not the production process they’d have preferred, and which market opportunities would have warranted) to a direct government intervention.    Pricing some people out of the labour market is no way to improve opportunities (and incomes) for all.

It is also not as if the increases in minimum wages are small.  The minimum wage was set at $15.75 last April, and under coalition agreement it is to reach $20 per hour in April 2021.  That is a 27 per cent increase in four years.  There will be some inflation over that period.  But on the Reserve Bank’s forecasts the other day, that will total only 6.7 per cent over four years.  In real terms, minimum wages are rising by 19 per cent in only four years.

All of which might be fine if there was productivity growth to match.    Over the last five years there has been only about 1.5 per cent productivity growth in total.

real GDP phw may 18

Perhaps the next few years will be different?  But there is nothing in the Minister’s remarks offering any sort of credible explanation as to how, or why we should expect something better?  Most likely, some firms –  not very resilient, in the Minister’s terms –  will be forced to close, to downsize, or to adopt production patterns that are less efficient than market opportunities and market prices would lead them to prefer.

Those losses are more likely to be concentrated in the outward-facing tradables sectors of the economy.   Domestically-oriented firms don’t have unlimited pricing power, but they often have some –  especially when across the board regulatory changes like this are put in place.  Most outward-oriented firms –  whether in tourism, export education, farming or wherever –  have very little, if any.

And it is not as if the economy has been successfully becoming more outward-oriented over recent years either, even before this latest scheduled lift in the real (unit labour cost) exchange rate.

export share may 18

One mark of a successful economy tends to be an increasing share of the economy accounted for by exports and imports –  local products and services successfully taking on the world, enabling locals to consume the best the world has to offer.

Perhaps the Minister wishes for a world of abundant home-grown high-performing, high margin businesses.  It might even be a worthy aspiration, but wishing doesn’t make it so, and there is no sign that government has any credible story as to what might make it so.

Changing tack, as I noted in my post on Saturday, I did an interview with Wallace Chapman for yesterday’s Sunday Morning  programme on Radio New Zealand.   Later in the same programme, Chapman had an interview on population issues with Massey university sociologist Paul Spoonley (he runs the government-funded immigration advocacy research programme CADDANZ) and with environmental economist Suzi Kerr, of Motu and Victoria University.

It was a slightly unnerving discussion, at least to anyone who counts children as a blessing.  Kerr seemed set on encouraging people to have fewer children for the “sake of planet” (observing that she and all the people she worked with had chosen to have two or fewer), observing that adjustment to climate change would be easier with fewer people.  In the course of the discussion, she was careful to disavow any particular expertise in immigration –  and didn’t come across as a particular immigration booster (countering Spoonley’s arguments in a couple of placs) – but never once did she suggest that if we were concerned about reducing the number of people here that immigration policy –  affecting non-New Zealanders –  would be an obvious place to start.  Non-citizen immigration is, after all, an increasingly large share of New Zealand’s population increase, and the total fertility rate here is already below replacement, reaching a record low last year.    I suspect she isn’t much interested in New Zealand specifically and is more interested in “saving the planet”, including talking of redistributing people round the world.  It was a little disconcerting given that she has just been appointed as a member of the government’s new Climate Change Commission (a fact Radio New Zealand failed to point out in introducing her).  One hopes that in her new official role she will think rather harder about the easier options –  if not ones necessary welcome to the political masters to whom the owes her appointment –  open to New Zealand to ease the cost of adjustment to the government’s carbon targets.

As for Spoonley, he asserted –  of my comments on immigration (lack of NZ specific evidence of benefits) in the earlier interview –  that I was partly right and partly wrong.    If he remains convinced of the economic benefits of immigration to New Zealanders as a whole, perhaps he could engage with some of the indicators I’ve referred to in various recent posts (eg here and here) –  the underperforming Auckland labour market, the outflow from Auckland of New Zealanders, the way in which the margin by which real GDP per capita in Auckland exceeds that in the rest of the country is small and shrinking, all in an economy with an underwhelming overall productivity performance, and a shrinking share of the outward-oriented sectors.  Spoonley’s apparent preference –  to encourage/incentivise immigrants to move to places other than Auckland – is no (economic) solution either, just transferring the problems to even less productive places.

 

Auckland labour market outcomes: do any political parties care?

Among the various arguments advanced for why we should expect that large-scale government-led non-citizen immigration will prove economically beneficial to New Zealanders are claims about the labour market.

There are, for example, suggestions that the unemployment rate will tend to be (a bit) lower than otherwise, because ready access to offshore labour facilitates better skill-matching.  Larger labour markets  might work in the same direction –  easier for people displaced, or new entrants, to find jobs in a deeper more diverse market.

And there is the suggestion that average GDP per capita is likely to be raised just because the average immigrant is more likely to be of working age (few countries let in many 75 year olds). On this telling, even if there were no productivity gains (ie lifts in, say, GDP per hour worked) from large scale immigration, average incomes would be raised simply because of the implied higher rates of labour force participation.  In fact, this argument was run only a matter of weeks ago in an official Australian government document, a defence of Australia’s large-scale immigration programme published by the Federal Treasury and the Department of Home Affairs (the department directly responsible for immigration matters).  From page 27

After trending upward for almost three decades, Australia’s labour force participation rate declined from the early 2010s through to 2016 (Figure 22). This decline coincided with a large cohort of baby boomers reaching retirement, which weighed on Australia’s participation rate. Yet evidence shows that migrants, particularly skilled migrants, have helped curb the ageing of the population by boosting the labour force. Without the contribution from migrants, all else being equal, Australia’s participation rate would be lower than at present.

Many of these claims had initially seemed plausible enough to me.  In fact, in a major modelling exercise done for one of MBIE’s predecessor departments a decade ago –  and widely touted at the time –  the only overall economic gains from immigration resulted from this assumed higher participation rate.

But a while ago I noticed that the unemployment rate in Auckland hadn’t been any lower than that in the rest of New Zealand.  This chart uses annual data, up to and including the latest release last week.

U rate akld and RONZ

Auckland is a good place to focus on. Not only is it by far the biggest labour market in the country, but it also has by far the highest proportion of foreign-born residents, and receives a disproportionate –  but not surprising –  share of the new migrants, temporary and permanent.    Labour market laws apply nationwide, but you might think that some would be a little less binding in Auckland than elsewhere –  for example, there is a nationwide minimum wage, but average productivity is higher in Auckland than on average in the rest of the country.  All else equal, again one might expect Auckland’s unemployment rate to have been a little lower than that in the rest of the country.

And yet over the 32 years for which we have the data there is no sign that unemployment rates in Auckland have been lower than those elsewhere.  There might be a bit of a cyclical pattern –  Auckland does worse in downturns (see early 90s, and the period from 2008 until recently), and better in periods of strong economic growth (and that cyclicality may itself be exacerbated by the large New Zealand cycles in net migration) – but there is no sign of much beyond that.

What about employment rates (calculated as the share of those aged over 15 in paid employment)?

E rates akld and ronz

Interestingly, employment rates in Auckland used to be quite a bit higher than those in the rest of New Zealand, but they aren’t now.    Perhaps the difference in the earlier period reflects differences in how the economic restructuring and reduction in trade protection affected different regions –  it seems plausible (although I’m happy to see any confounding evidence) that the initial job losses might have been more heavily concentrated outside Auckland, with the gap closing again over time.  Whatever the explanation for the earlier period, average Auckland employment rates have struggled to match those in the rest of the country over the last 15 years or so (periods encompassing two big waves of non-citizen migration).

And as I thought about it, this chart started to puzzle me more.  After all, the denominator is the population of working age, which includes all the elderly, and yet as the recipient of the largest share of migrants wouldn’t one expect Auckland’s working age population to be concentrated in the age ranges with the highest rates of labour force participation?   And there are the persistent stories of old people moving out of Auckland –  the money tied up in the overpriced house goes further in the provinces.

And, sure enough, here are the official estimates of the share of the working age population aged over 65 in 2017 (the numbers aren’t materially different from the firmer numbers from the 2013 Census).

over 65s wap

Auckland has by far the lowest share of its working age population aged over 65.  Across the country, those aged over 65 have an average employment rate of about 24 per cent, while for the working age population as a whole the employment rate is more like 68 per cent.    And yet, despite having so many fewer old people the overall employment rate in Auckland is no higher than in the rest of New Zealand taken together.

There isn’t a great of information about labour force status disaggregated by both age and regional council, but I did find some data for the last few years comparing Auckland and the Wellington and Canterbury regional council areas.

e rates by age and regional council

Even among the older cohort, employment rates in Auckland have been a little below those in Wellington and Canterbury (in not a single year was the Auckland rate higher than in either Wellington or Canterbury –  despite the smaller number of over 65s).  But in the younger cohorts the differences are quite a bit larger.   Perhaps some of the difference among the 15-24 cohort reflects the presence of foreign students (although many of them are working), but in the prime age cohort (25 to 54) the average employment rate in Auckland over the last eight years has been, on average, a full four percentage points lower than that in Wellington and Canterbury.

To be clear, this is a not a comment on the employment rates of recent immigrants (which may well be quite – even very –  high).  The HLFS simply doesn’t have that sort of data.  It is an estimate based on the Auckland economy as a whole.   And quite what explains it, I’m not quite sure.   For anyone wondering if the ethnic composition of Auckland’s population is part (cause or consequence) of the story –  whatever factors result in lower Maori and Pacific participation rates – here are the average participation rates for the last decade by ethnicity for Auckland and the rest of the country.

partic rate by ethnicity

European participation rates have actually been higher in Auckland than in the rest of the country.   But Maori and –  especially –  Pacific participation rates average materially lower.

Whatever the explanation, it isn’t obviously a story in which one of the largest non-citizen immigration programmes anywhere in the world, over decades, has produced an Auckland labour market that seems to be functioning in a way that might suggest economic gains across the board.  Unemployment rates are no lower than in the country as a whole, employment rates are materially lower once one allows for the much smaller number of old people in Auckland, and there might be straws in the wind (that final chart) suggesting that the ethnic groups that typically do most poorly in New Zealand anyway are even less likely to be engaged in the labour market in Auckland than in the rest of the country.

Throw in the data I mentioned the other day –  average GDP per capita in Auckland lower relative to that in the rest of the country than it was at the turn of the century, and the internal migration data suggesting that (in modest numbers) New Zealanders (net) are leaving Auckland – and it should leave the champions of current immigration policy very much on the defensive.  Unwilling or unable to fix the housing/land market, and with no obvious productivity or labour market gains to show for their Auckland-focused strategy, it increasingly looks like a Think Big disaster of a severity and pervasive effect (including on many of our most disadvantaged) that makes the 1980s version (the shockingly uneconomic energy projects) look like a mere bagatelle.

But, remarkably, no political party –  major or minor –  seems bothered.

(And before anyone pops up to remind me that I often point out that employment is an input not an outcome –  not, in itself, a measure of economic success –  that is, of course, true.  Nonetheless, there aren’t particularly good reasons to suppose that working age Aucklanders have stronger leisure preferences than otherwise similar people in the rest of the country –  faced with, eg, the same tax rates –  and some reason to suppose it might be the other way round (eg the sheer cost of purchasing a house).)

Some Anglo labour markets

Having suggested yesterday that it might be time to think about cutting the OCR, or at least firmly committing to not raising it unless or until core inflation has already risen close to 2 per cent,  I was reflecting a bit on the handful of countries in which the central bank has raised policy interest rates, in particular Canada, the UK, and the United States.

In the UK case, one could almost discount the single increase, which really only reversed the cut put in place in the climate of heightened uncertainty after the Brexit referendum.   But in Canada and the United States there have been several increases –  in Canada, the policy rate is now 1.25 per cent, up from a low of 0.5 per cent, and in the United States, the Federal funds rate target is 1.25 percentage points off the lows.    In Canada’s case, there has even been signs of a sustained increase in core inflation, although in neither country is core inflation yet at target.

One material difference, if one contrasts New Zealand and Australia on the one hand, and the UK, Canada, and the United States on the other, is spare capacity in the labour market.  Since institutional features (labour regulations, welfare entitlements etc) vary from country to country –  affecting the “natural” rate of unemployment – one can’t take much from simple cross-country comparisons of unemployment rates.   But I’d noticed a headline suggesting Canada’s unemployment rate –  at 5.7 per cent –  was the lowest it had been in decades, and wondered how that comparison looked for the other countries.

Current unemployment rate Minimum since 1986
Australia 5.5 4.1
Canada 5.7 5.7
New Zealand 4.6 3.3
United Kingdom 4.2 4.2
United States 4.1 3.9

Like Canada, the UK also now has an unemployment rate that is the lowest in decades (I started the comparison from 1986 when the New Zealand HLFS started).   The United States unemployment rate is getting close to to the multi-decade low.   But in both Australia and New Zealand, the unemployment rates are well above the 30+ years lows.  Perhaps not very surprisingly, core inflation is weak in both countries  – the December quarter data for Australia are out tomorrow, but in September, the trimmed mean inflation rate was 1.8 per cent, against a target midpoint of 2.5 per cent.

Why these five countries?   Mostly, because all five have (a) data going back thirty years or more, and (b) have had floating exchange rates pretty consistently (the UK had three years in the European Monetary System).   Countries that had fixed exchange rates in the past often had bigger fluctuations in their unemployment rates.

Of course, even this comparison could be overly simplistic.  After all, labour market regulation etc can, and does, change over time, as do things like welfare benefit/work test regimes.  But over 30 years, both the New Zealand and Australian labour markets are generally regarded as having had more policy liberalisation than many other advanced countries.  Our minimum wage policy may be a partial exception, although even there we aren’t alone –  the UK, for example, has moved from having no national minimum wage to an increasingly binding (high) one.

And one area suggesting that our “natural” rate of unemployment (or NAIRU) might have been trending down more than in other countries, is the increased participation in the labour force of people 65 and over.  The OECD data only start in 2000, but here is how things have changed.

Labour force participation rate, age 65+
2000 2016
Australia 6.0 12.6
Canada 6.0 13.7
New Zealand 7.7 23.4
United Kingdom 5.3 10.7
United States 12.9 19.3

New Zealand’s participation rate for old people has increased far more than those of these other Anglo countries. And since the unemployment rate for this age group in New Zealand is a mere 1.2 per cent, almost arithmetically a rising share of the labour force made up of an age group with a very low unemployment rate will tend to lower the average unemployment rate, and the NAIRU.    Our NZS system is structured to provide a near-universal modest welfare benefit, but impose no penalty on those who continue to work.   If an old person loses their job, they face less immediate pressure to find a new one (than, say, a 21 year old), and it isn’t surprising then that the unemployment rate for that age group –  a rising share of the labour force –  is so low.

I wouldn’t want to base any strong conclusions on these simple comparisons, but when you hear talk of some other central banks modestly raising interest rates, remember that conditions aren’t the same from the country to country, and that in New Zealand (and Australia) not only is core inflation persistently low, but there is little sign of any intense pressure on capacity in the labour market.

Workers in a fool’s paradise

A couple of months ago I did a post highlighting some little recognised aspects of the New Zealand data on wages and labour income.   They suggested that, given the underlying relatively poor performance of the economy, workers hadn’t done badly at all. I was curious how the latest national accounts data had changed the picture.

The first chart that attracted my interest was the labour income (“compensation of employees”) share of GDP.   The data are only available annually, but they suggested quite a recovery in the labour share of GDP in the 00s, which had been sustained this decade to date.

COE

That was the picture on the previous iteration of data.     Here is the updated version.

COE jan 17

The picture is subtly different, and if anything the labour income share looks to have been shrinking gradually this decade, even if it is still well above where it was in 2001/2 (the historical low).

But the other chart, which I found more striking, was one in which I compared growth in nominal wage rates against growth in nominal GDP per hour worked.   I used the Statistics New Zealand Analytical Unadjusted Labour Cost Index series.  It isn’t widely referred to, but relative to the headline LCI series it is a pure wages series, not one in which SNZ has already tried to adjust for productivity, and relative to the QES, it is much smoother (the way economists typically think of wage-setting behaviour) and produces more sensible and plausible series (some of the problems with the QES were illustrated in the earlier post).

When I did the exercise earlier, on the old data, I found that cumulative wage inflation –  particularly that in the private sector –  had run quite a bit ahead of productivity (GDP per hour worked) since around 2002.    Here is the updated version of the chart.

wages and nom GDP phw jan 18

There is a lot of short-term noise in the series –  and wages last year were somewhat “artificially” boosted by the pay equity settlement – but if the extent to which wages have moved ahead of productivity is less than it was in the previous iteration of the data (GDP has been revised up, and wage rate data are unchanged), the trend I highlighted last year is still there.

In my earlier post, I noted that this chart had been done using GDP itslf, and that to be more strictly accurate I should have taken account of, eg, the 2010 change in GST (which boosted GDP but shouldn’t have affected wages).    Data on indirect taxes and subsidies are only available annually, so here is a smoothed (four quarter moving average) version of the chart, this time comparing wages against nominal GDP per hour worked excluding indirect taxes and subsidies.

wages and nom GDP phw ex taxes and subsides jan 18

What has been going on?   One possibility is that the Analytical Unadjusted wages data are just substantially wrong?   But they are series that have now been published by SNZ for more than 20 years, and I don’t have specific things I can point to suggesting that they are wrong.

If the data are picking up something real, what then might be the story?   Here was what I included in the earlier post.

My explanation is pretty simple: the (real) exchange rate, which stepped up sharply about 15 years ago and has never sustainably come down since.    When the exchange rate is high, firms in the tradables sectors make less money than they otherwise would have done.   The usual counter to that is that the terms of trade have risen.  But the increase in the real exchange rate has been considerably more than the higher terms of trade would warrant, and in any case much of the gains in the terms of trade have come in the form of lower real import prices, rather than higher real export prices.

And why has the exchange rate been so high?  Because the economy has been strongly skewed towards the non-tradables sector which –  by definition –  does not face the test of international competition.  Demand for labour in that sector has been strong, on average, over the last 15 years, and it is the non-tradables sector that has, in effect, set the marginal price for labour.  For those firms, in aggregate, the lack of productivity growth doesn’t matter much –  they pass costs on to customers.  But it matters a lot for tradables sector producers, who have to pay the market price for labour, with no ability to pass those costs on (while the exchange rate puts downward pressure on their overall returns).  Another definition of the real exchange rate is the price of non-tradables relative to those of tradables. Consistent with this sort of story, in per capita terms real tradables sector GDP peaked back in 2004 (levels that is, not growth rates).

It isn’t, to repeat, a story in which labour has done well absolutely.  As I illustrated the other day, over the last five years there has been about 1 per cent real productivity growth in total.  For decades, we’ve been slipping backwards relative to other advanced countries.   But given the weak overall performance, labour doesn’t look to have done too badly.   That isn’t a recommendation for the “economic strategy” the last two governments have pursued.  A climate in which firms don’t find investment attractive –  perhaps especially investment in the internationally-competitive tradables sector –  isn’t likely to be one that conduces to generating sustained high performance and strong medium-term income growth.

And here is the proxy for business investment (total investment less housing and government) as a share of GDP

bus inv jan 18

Despite some of the best terms of trade in decades, business investment has been poor this cycle –  following on from several decades when it has typically been well below that of the median OECD country (despite well above median population growth).  The notion that “investment has been weak in lots of countries”, even to the extent true, should be no consolation: we started so far behind there was (and is) plenty of scope for us to have caught up, not being so affected by financial crises, euro-area ructions, zero lower bounds or whatever.

It is a fool’s paradise model: non-tradables focused businesses (of which there are many) do just fine, supported by continuing rapid population growth, but there isn’t much net investment at all outside those sectors as New Zealand proves to be an increasingly unfavourable place to build and base internationally competitive businesses.  Productivity growth remains weak, perhaps even weakens further.   Wages might well outstrip productivity growth, but in the long-run only sustained productivity growth will support high material living standards here.   It isn’t a model that need end in crisis, but rather in mediocrity.  And New Zealanders could do so much better.