Len Bayliss RIP

I wasn’t planning to write anything today, but in the death notices of the Dominion-Post I noticed this morning the passing of Len Bayliss, one of the most prominent New Zealand economists of a previous generation (late 1960s to, say, the late 1980s).

I only met Len once, but when I first came to Wellington in the late 1970s he was a prominent public figure, and I was enough of a political/economic junkie to get a bit of a buzz from the fact that one of his sons was in my class at Rongotai College and that, for a year or two while I was at university, Len often caught the same bus into town each weekday morning as I did.

Len was born and educated in Britain, but wanted to get out of the United Kingdom after finishing his degree at Cambridge.  Eschewing South Africa for laudable reasons, he wrote to various banks and government agencies in Australia and New Zealand, and after an interview that seemed to be not much more than a cup of tea with a visiting Deputy Governor passing through London he was hired by the Reserve Bank of New Zealand in 1951, where he spent quite a few years in a vibrant economics department.

He moved on to the Monetary and Economic Council, and played a key role in that agency’s 1966 report calling for liberalisation of the financial sector –  which wasn’t particularly popular with the bureaucratic establishment.  But his most prominent perch was as the long-serving Chief Economist of the (state-owned) Bank of New Zealand, where he openly championed sound economic management and liberalisation.  In the early years of Muldoon’s Prime Ministership he served on the Prime Minister’s Policy Advisory Group and appears to have played an instrumental role in the financial liberalisation that government undertook in 1976/77.   Of Muldoon in this role he wrote

Excellent. He was the best boss I’ve ever had. Absolutely decisive. I wrote his speech for the Mansion House dinner, the most important speech he’d made after becoming PM. I gave it to him. He said send it to Treasury and see if it’s all right with them. They wrote back wanting something changed and wrote a little memo and he just put ‘No’. And he always was very proper. He may have been tough to his political opponents but as Bernard Galvin used to say, certainly in the time I was there, it was a very happy group. He never tried to force you to do anything. In a sense, he treated you just like a public servant, as a politician should treat them. He was decisive. He would argue very intelligently. Watching him at the Cabinet Economic Committee, he really tore strips off ministers who hadn’t done their homework. And I saw him several times in debates with Noel Lough [Deputy Secretary to the Treasury]. Noel Lough was a lovely bloke but Muldoon really won the debates.

After his secondment ended, Bayliss returned to the BNZ, from where a few years later, having become increasingly critical of the economic management of the New Zealand economy, he was put in a position where –  under fire from Muldoon, and with no support from the supine BNZ Board and management –  he felt he had no choice but to resign (at considerable financial cost to himself).

In the post-liberalisation year, Bayliss served on the Board of the BNZ, and he recounted in his published works the frustrations of trying to constrain a management gorging on bad credit, and eventually driving the bank to the point of failure.

At a macroeconomic level he had long-favoured liberalisation and stabilisation (cutting inflation, balancing the budget) but in the post-liberalisation decade he was increasingly uneasy about the persistently high real exchange rate –  a concern that he (rightly in my view) never lost.

As I said, I only met Len once –  although we had corresponded a bit since –  when the New Zealand Association of Economists asked me to record, and edit, a long interview with him (as part of a series on the life and work of prominent New Zealand economists).  The text of that interview has quite bit that might interest those concerned with the history of New Zealand economic and financial policy.

In preparing for that interview, I had been focused on the earlier decades and didn’t give the attention it warranted to his departure from the BNZ or his later time on the Board.   But

…as he records it, that interview and some follow-up questions from me prompted him to put together a volume of documents and recollections  –  Recollections: Bank of New Zealand 1981-1992  – dealing with his ouster from the BNZ and his later term as a government-appointed director of the BNZ as it descended into crisis and near-failure in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

And I used that material last year for a post on his ouster from the BNZ, having finally got under the skin of the Prime Minister once too often.

When some academic finally writes the definitive history of the financial debacle/crisis in New Zealand in the late 80s and early 90s, I hope they take time to draw on the perspectives and papers Bayliss has apparently lodged at Massey University.

His was a courageous voice, unusual for its day.  In an environment in which few could speak –  there weren’t many economists outside government –  it was a valuable contribution in articulating the increasing unease about New Zealand’s economic underperformance and poor economic management.


Reflecting on Jim Anderton

I have a pleasant memory of the only time I met Jim Anderton. One of his daughters was in the same class as me at Remuera Intermediate, and at the end of the year the Andertons hosted a class barbecue at their home just up the street from the school.   I was a youthful political junkie and Jim Anderton was running for Mayor of Auckland.  It was a pleasant evening and he seemed to be a lively and engaged parent (later struck by the awfulness of the suicide of another daughter).

Accounts suggest that Anderton did a good job of helping to revitalise the Labour Party organisation in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  He was, for the time, a moderniser, instrumental in helping reduce the direct influence of the trade unions in the party, and promoting the selection of some able candidates who hadn’t served time in the party (eg Geoffrey Palmer).  Various tributes talk of a personal, and practical, generosity.

I don’t suppose either that there was any doubt that he pursued causes he believed in, and that those causes were, more or less, what he regarded as being in the best interests of New Zealanders (perhaps especially “ordinary working New Zealanders”).   Probably most politicians do.  Sometimes they are mostly right about the merits of the causes they pursue, and sometimes not.    In Anderton’s case, even if one agreeed with the sort of outcomes he might have hoped for, his views on the best means seem –  perhaps even more so with hindsight than at the time –  to have been pretty consistently wrong.   And for all the public talk in the last few days about Anderton’s contribution to New Zealand, few (if any) of the things he opposed in the 1980s have been unwound/reversed, and few of the things he championed when he served later as an effective senior minister have done much for New Zealanders.

Take the 1980s when, upon entering Parliament in 1984, Anderton quickly isolated himself in caucus.  Even before that election, he’d opposed the CER agreement with Australia, and opposed Roger Douglas’s talk of a need for a devaluation and a reduction in the real exchange rate.  Even after the 1984 election, in circumstances of quasi-crisis, Anderton still opposed the by-then inevitable devaluation –  and in league with Sir Robert Muldoon sought to use a select committee to run a kangaroo-court inquiry, to undermine the choices his own government had made.   He was opposed to GST, and he was opposed to creating SOEs for state-trading operations.   He opposed privatisations, whether small or large.   Of the large, there was vocal opposition to the sale of the BNZ and of Telecom.  I suspect the list of reform measures, not subsequently unwound, that Anderton did enthusiastically support would be considerably shorter –  perhaps vanishingly so –  than the list of those he opposed.

As a pure political achievement, to have survived resigning from the Labour Party – in a pre MMP period –  was worthy of note.  But then Winston Peters did much the same thing –  and he’d had the courage to resign his seat and win a by-election to return to Parliament.  And the distinctive Jim Anderton party has long since disappeared, as Anderton returned to the Labour fold.

And what causes did he champion as a senior minister (for a time, deputy prime minister, in the fifth Labour government).   Probably the institution that will be always associated with Anderton’s name is Kiwibank: it certainly wouldn’t have existed without him.  But to what end?   Has Kiwibank changed the shape of New Zealand banking?  Not in ways I can see.  It remains a pretty small player, operating in segments of the market where there has always been plenty of competition.  It hasn’t come to a sticky end –  as many state-owned banks have here and abroad –  but we’ve never had the data to know whether, even on strictly commercial grounds, the establishment of the bank was a good deal for taxpayers (but the fact that no private new entrant has tried something similar suggests probably not).   If simply promoting competition in banking had been the goal, perhaps it would have been preferable to have prevented the takeover of The National Bank by the ANZ?

There has been talk in the last few days of Anderton’s contribution to “revitalising the regions”.  I’m not sure what this can possibly mean –  even allowing for a few government offices being decentralised (at some cost) around regional centres.   Generally, the real exchange rate mattters much more for the economic health of the regions than direct stuff governments do.   Anderton was Minister of Economic Development.  In that role, he was keen on using taxpayer money to subsidise yacht-building (which didn’t end well), and a champion of film industry subsidies.   In tributes this week, there has also been the suggestion that Anderton was one of those responsible for the creation of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, something I hadn’t heard before.   If so, I guess he deserves some partial credit for the fiscal restraint the then Labour government exercised in its first few years.  Beyond that, what was created was a leveraged speculative investment fund –  not a model followed, as far as I can tell, in other advanced economy –   with returns that over almost 15 years now really only seem to approximately compensate for the high risks the taxpayer is being exposed to.  No doubt Anderton opposed the decision in 1989 or 1990 to start raising the NZS eligibility age from 60 to 65, and the same opposition to any further increase in the age beyond 65 –  even though it is a step many other advanced countries have taken, as life expectancies improved –  was presumably behind any involvement he had in the creation of the NZSF.  In so doing, once again his hand was involved in holding back sensible gradual reforms, and keeping New Zealand a bit poorer than it need be.

I suspect many of the tributes of the last few days are mostly a reflection of Anderton’s part in the Labour reconcilation.  The prodigal son returned –  having been one of the leading figures in fomenting the civil wars in the first place, before walking out of the party.   They were tumultuous years, and few things are nastier than civil wars.  Anderton doesn’t ever seem to have been a team player, but by the end of his career he seem to have found his place back alongside the team he started with.

But from a whole-of-nation perspective, what did Anderton accomplish?     If the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s haven’t produced the results the advocates hoped for –  we still drift, more slowly, further behind other advanced countries – that wasn’t for the sorts of reasons Anderton advanced.  Had we followed his advice, we’d most likely now be poorer still –  and many of the issues around equality and social cohesion that he worried about might have been no more effectively addressed.     In the end, Anderton is perhaps best seen as a belated figure from the New Zealand of the 1950s and 60s.  There was a lot to like about the New Zealand of those years –  some of the best living standards in the world then – for all the increasingly costly distortions to our economy.   There are parallels to Muldoon –  who famously told a TV interviewer of his goal to leave New Zealand no worse than he found it –  both in the genuineness of their concerns, and the wrongness of too many of their policy stances.  Both seemed to back very reluctantly into the future, with all too much willingness to trust our fortunes to the state, and the possible winners identified by politicians and officials, rather than to the market.

The 1987 crash: experience and reflection

The upside of a decent memory and a pretty comprehensive diary is that one is reminded of how many things one misjudged, or at least sees differently now, over the course of decades.  In my case, the stock market crash of 1987 was one of those events.

There were excuses I suppose.  I was young –  just 25 –  and had only just come back from two years at the (central) Bank of Papua New Guinea – a place where I’d learned a great deal about economics, politics, regulation, statistics and so on but where, from memory, there were about five, rarely-traded, public companies.  In late August 1987, I’d taken up the role of Manager, Monetary Policy at the Reserve Bank, working for (current “acting Governor”) Grant Spencer.  The Reserve Bank wasn’t (formally) operationally independent at the time, and my section was responsible for our monetary policy analysis and advice, including that to the then Minister of Finance.    It was a very different world.  The Bank produced macroeconomic forecasts, but they weren’t that important in how policy was run.  We didn’t set an official interest rate, and to the extent we were guided by any financial market indicators, the “yield gap” –  between 90 day bill rates and five year government bond rates –  was the most important indicator.  My diary suggests my team spent a considerable portion of late 1987 working on a paper on the yield gap and the making sense of the slope of the yield curve, for a new Associate Minister who had trained as an economist and was intrigued.

Official doctrine was that it was very hard to interpret the level of interest rates.  It was only three years since we’d liberalised, so didn’t have much sense of an appropriate interest rate in normal circumstances, and these circumstances were anything but normal (hence the focus on the yield gap –  if short-term rates were well above long-term rates then, in a climate where we were trying to drive down inflation, we couldn’t be too far wrong).  Much the same line applied to interpreting the exchange rate.   Both interest rates and the exchange rate were extraordinary volatile.

wholesale int rate 85 to 97

We didn’t really have a good model for forecasting, or making sense of, inflation either.   Again, that wasn’t really surprising.  So much had been liberalised quite quickly and a lot of economic relationships that had once held up no longer did.   Our basic approach was that inflation was a monetary phenomenon, but it wasn’t as if the monetary or credit aggregates could then give us much useful guidance either.

The focus was on bringing inflation down.  It was the one thing we knew the Reserve Bank could do, especially once the exchange rate had been floated, and I don’t suppose there was anyone who opposed that broad goal.   There wasn’t a very specific goal, but for some time the talk had been of “low single figure inflation” which was, at least at times, seen as emulating the success of the UK and the US earlier in the 1990s in bringing inflation down.

But inflation itself was all over the place.

CPI inflation 83 to 87

Annual headline inflation was 18.9 per cent in the year to June 1987.  Much of that reflected the introduction of GST in October 1986, but even abstracting from that quarterly inflation was volatile, and disconcertingly high.    There had been a sense that by early 1986 things were coming under control –  hence the sharp fall in interest rates in mid 1986 (see earlier chart) –  but that proved illusory.   Just before I came back to the Bank in August I recall seeing Grant Spencer interviewed on TV after the June quarter 1987 CPI numbers came out: quarterly inflation of 3.3 per cent (I think the Bank had been expecting something nearer 2 per cent) left the Chief Economist “flabbergasted”.   Low single figure inflation seemed a long way away, as the commercial construction boom, and the debt-fuelled sharemarket boom and associated strength in consumption raged on.    The (volatile) exchange rate offered some solace –  at the time, the pass-through from the exchange rate into domestic prices was still quite strong (we assumed something like a 46 per cent pass through) –  although I’m sure we all remembered that after the devaluation of 1984, a key policy priority had been cementing-in a  much lower real exchange rate.  (As a young graduate analyst, I’d been the minute-taker in various meetings on that theme involving the great and the good of the Reserve Bank and The Treasury).

twi 87

And so in September 1987, the biggest concern in the Economics Department of the Reserve Bank was that we were making little or no progress in getting inflation back down again.  Perhaps we weren’t going back to the 15 per cent inflation we’d often seen before the wage and price freezes of 1982 to 1984, but there didn’t seem much reason for confidence that once the GST effects dropped out we’d settle at much below 10 per cent annual inflation.  That wasn’t good enough for the government –  newly re-elected, and just about to launch the next wave of reforms  –  or for us.

Other parts of the Reserve Bank may have had different perspectives.  We didn’t do much banking regulation or supervision in those days, but a new function was just getting going, and I didn’t have much to do with them.  Our Financial Markets Department was probably a little more focused on the excesses in the markets –  including the big speculative plays on the NZD –  but the Bank wasn’t responsible for equity markets, and we didn’t have a “macro-financial stability” type of analytical function there or in Economics.   At the time we didn’t pay very much close attention to what was going on in other countries, but had we done so, we’d probably have seen a bunch of smallish economies undergoing similar post-liberalisation experiences (Australia and the Nordics), while congratulating ourselves that at least we’d floated our exchange rate (which the Nordics hadn’t).

But our focus in September/October 1987 was on tightening monetary policy if at all possible.  And on 7 October 1987, we’d actually announced a discrete monetary policy tightening (implemented by an increase in the margin above market rates at which we would buy back short-dated government securities from the market).   We’d tried to buttress the case for a tightening by arguing that the strength of the stock market was an indicator of demand and inflation pressures, but an older and (with hindsight) wiser senior manager insisted we remove that line.  My diary records that I thought the tightening was “pretty feeble” and that at a market function immediately after the announcement at least one of the market economists I talked to agreed (Grant Spencer, to his credit, disagreed).    Actual interest rates didn’t rise very much at all –  at least in the way we thought about things then – but by 16 October 90 day bank bill rates were 20.56 per cent.  There was no unease from the Beehive –  my diary for 15 October records of a meeting with Roger Douglas and his associate only “the latter almost gleeful at having closed almost 450 Post Offices”.

In many ways, our stance to this point was quite justifiable.  A key element of the macroeconomic management agenda ever since the 1984 election had been to end New Zealand’s really bad record of inflation.  And that was the Reserve Bank’s job.  Moreover, even if we had properly recognised the ever-growing fragility of the financial system etc, neither we –  nor anyone else –  had any way of knowing when those risks would crystallise.   Persistent strong domestic demand, even if built on foundations of sand, represented a serious threat to any sort of success in lowering inflation to what were, by then, becoming more internationally conventional levels.  So it probably wasn’t wrong to have tightened on 7 October, and may not even have been wrong for people like me to think that more tightening might yet be required.   Annual money and credit growth rates were, after all, still running at around 20 per cent –  indeed, a couple of days after the crash began we got new numbers that I called “presentationally (and factually) very embarrassing when [our chief critics] get hold of it”.  If there was a real squeeze on the tradables sector –  and there was –  the unemployment rate in mid 1987 was stable at around 4.2 per cent (lower than it is today).   At the time we didn’t really believe that seriously high unemployment would, for a time, be required to get inflation down –  I recall an IMF mission chief at the time reproaching us for this view – probably partly because after three years, unemployment hadn’t risen.  But whatever the truth of the matter, 4.2 per cent unemployment, amid a major economic restructuring, wasn’t exactly the 3 million unemployed of Thatcher’s Britain earlier in the decade.

So if there was a criticism to be made –  and I think it is probably fair that one should –  it was that we simply weren’t prepared for what followed.   There may have been people at the Bank –  older and wiser than me – who saw things differently then, and if so all credit to them.  But I was pretty closely involved on the monetary policy side throughout the following five years and I don’t think my blindspots were particularly unusual (I wrote many of the major papers, including the first ever Monetary Policy Statement, which has little or no sense of a post credit-boom bust to it_.  Again, it is possible that our banking supervision people saw things differently, but banking supervision –  such as it was – didn’t impinge on monetary policy or our macroeconomic forecasting and analysis.   We never really worked through what an asset bust and financial crisis meant for economic developments and prospects, and mostly treated them as peripheral issues.

On 20 October itself –  the first day of the crash in New Zealand –  I recorded in my diary “Bank not at all twitchy yet, which is good, and Douglas put on a brave face tonight”.   I saw the risk of economic contractions and real wealth effects, but for some reason seemed to see the risks as mainly those from abroad (commercial property busts overseas associated with potential credit contractions, recessions, falls in commodity prices etc) and thus potentially helpful in our own disinflation efforts.  For some – now unaccountable –  reason I noted that I didn’t see the New Zealand fundamentals as particularly problematic.   As I say, records of the past can make one wince.

A week or so later –  in one of those events I’ve never needed a diary to recall –  Paul Frater and Kel Sanderson, then the leading figures at BERL –  pretty vocal critics of our approach to monetary policy – came in to see Grant Spencer and me.  Sitting in Grant’s office

“among other topics, they gave us their gloomy assessment of the impact of the share price falls –  very pessimistic about comm. property and about the future size of many broking firms and merchant banks”.

They foreshadowed a financial crisis, and a lot of stress on bank balance sheets.  We were pretty dismissive of their concerns.

Within a day or two, concerns were mounting even within the Bank, focused on the fate of some of the investment companies (“Judge, Rada and Renouf”) and those they might drag down with them.   There was, I recorded, no panic over financial institutions themselves, but we’d had internal discussion of a possible liquidity response, agreeing in principle to raise the target level of settlement cash and perhaps cap the level of the discount rate (which normally moved with market rates) –  I think, from context, this hypothetical response was envisaged if interest rates rose (as, say, they did in the 2008 crisis).

A week later we acted.  It was never represented as a monetary policy easing –  although it was –  and so even today there is a mythology abroad (I saw it in a recent Liam Dann article on the crash) that the Reserve Bank did nothing in response.  On the day, 90 day bill rates –  which hadn’t risen since the crash, despite increase risk concerns and limit cuts –  fell 1.5 percentage points on the day.    (By August the following year, 90 day bill rates were down to 14 per cent –  a similar-sized fall to the active cut in policy rates the Reserve Bank implemented in 2008/09.)

My diary entry that day is sufficiently long, and embarrassingly wrong, that I won’t quote from it at any length: suffice to say that I called it a “precipitate panicky move”.  To be sure, the issue in the market at the time wasn’t the interest rate (which hadn’t risen) –  it was blind fear and an often-quite-rational newfound reluctance to lend –  and we had no evidence that inflation or inflation expectations would fall, and the Bank had over the years been too receptive to pressure from banks.  But, such were the genuine fears and rising risk aversion, that the response was only prudent.   Immediate responses can always be revisited once the immediate panic passes and, frankly, there wasn’t much, if any, moral hazard risk in the sort of action we took.   We weren’t lending more to anyone, let alone to bad credits.

But it wasn’t the way I saw it.  A few days later, apparently, I circulated a discussion note “provocatively titled ‘Is it time to lower the cash target’, (ie tighten up again) arguing strongly in the affirmative”.  The same day I recorded that Grant Spencer had deleted a description in a draft Board paper of the 6 November easing as “temporary”, observing to me “nice try”.  My approach wasn’t totally hawkish –  I also toyed with the idea of a cap on our discount rate, in case renewed crisis pressures spilled back into higher interest rates.  As the month went on and interest rates fell further, my arguments (in another “longer and more reasoned note”) starting commanding more sympathy among my colleagues, and some hawkish market economists.    The Deputy Governor even did the courtesy of ringing to discuss it.  But this was one of those times when –  at least with hindsight – the more senior were better judges of the situation than those of us further down the food chain.  In mid-November, I recorded a conversation with Iain Rennie –  then an analyst at Treasury –  in which he told me that the distribution of views was much the same at Treasury.

The (apparent) tensions betwen the financial stability and inflation control perspective must have been very real.  When my latest note was discussed at (the equivalent of) the Monetary Policy Committee, I recorded that there was plenty of agreement with the analysis and none with the recommendation (to reverse some of the easing) – “terrified of the possibility of collapses corporate and financial” , with rumours rife.

Of course, there were plenty of collapses to come, of corporates and fringe financial institutions.   Of the things that were feared, most come true.  In fact, reality was worse, because the crisis eventually engulfed mainstream large institutions on both sides of the Tasman.  Really bad lending –  whether to investment companies, or on a massive commercial propety boom –  eventually does that –  enabling a really big misallocation of real resources, and then eventually being found out.  Most of the waste isn’t in the crisis-aftermath; rather the bad seed is sown –  the waste actually happens – when all feels exuberant and the new investment is being recorded as an addition to GDP.

If I look back on my views during that frantic couple of months after the crash began, I was clearly wrong.  Even if monetary policy wasn’t going to do anything to save Judge, Renouf, the listed goat companies or whatever –  and nor should it –  it was quite clearly, even on the facts available at the time, a shock to the system which meant that lower interest rates were warranted.  Credit demand and associated activity would be weaker.  Interest rate falls would have happened anyway, even without our intervention (that was how the system worked then), but the nudge downwards, and the willingness to accommodate lower interest rates was clearly the right thing to do.

But it is also worth wondering what we might have done if we had correctly understood financial crises, asset busts etc, if we had envisaged several years of little or no growth, and two near-failures of our largest bank.  (That we didn’t, even later, is evident in a major article written by Grant Spencer and one his colleagues in late 1988 –  published the following year in a book on the liberalisation process, and which I reread last week –  in which the crash appears as not much more than a corrective to the excess enthusiasm for consumption up to 1987.)   The doves –  of whom there were plenty including Spencer and then Assistant Governor Peter Nicholl –  would, almost certainly have argued for further easings, allowing interest rates to fall materially further.       And yet it is far from clear that that would have been the right approach to have taken.

Inflation edged downwards only relatively slowly over 1989 and 1990, and it wasn’t until the big fiscal consolidation after the 1990 election, and as the 1991 recession unfolded, that we felt comfortable letting bank bill rates fall below the 14 per cent they got to in the months after the crash.  We, and other forecasters, misread the 1991 recession, but until that hit us we didn’t appear to be on track to getting inflation to target any sooner than the government had (by then) asked us to.  Inflation at the end of 1990 was still 5 per cent, and the target –  by then agreed by both main parties –  was 0 to 2 per cent inflation.  Getting inflation down isn’t technically difficult, but when real people and real institutions (with all their biases, incentives etc) are involved it can, and usually has been, costly and difficult.  Sometimes, a little learning can be a dangerous thing.  Perhaps a proper appreciation of the looming crisis, and the wasted real resources, at the end of 1988 would have made it even harder, perhaps even eventually more costly, to have secured something like price stability here.  I wouldn’t like to be seen as suggesting that we should welcome blind spots, or even ignorance, but sometimes perhaps they end up being less costly than idle theorising might suggest.

Finally, a week or so ago the Herald ran an interesting series of articles on the New Zealand experience in 1987.  The thing that most surprised me about those articles –  and in a way what prompted the thinking that led to this post –  was the almost complete omission of the role of banks in making it all possible.   Every over-optimistic borrower needs an over-optimistic lender if the loan is to happen.  There were plenty of the former, but all too many of the latter too –  whether state-owned lenders like the BNZ or the DFC or private sector ones, new entrants (NZI Bank anyone) or old, New Zealand owned or foreign-owned.  And the few institutions, on either side of the Tasman, who didn’t participate boots and all often weren’t particularly virtuous and far-seeing, but just slow.  Given another year or two, they’d probably have got into the mix too, and if existing management wouldn’t do so, well other managers could soon be found.

In many ways it was a classic financial crisis –  the definitive history of which has still to be written.  There was the displacement of genuine new opportunities, enough of a narrative for even the cautious to believe that the future would be quite a bit different and better than the past, official backing (indeed, at times, cheer-leading), extraneous feel-good factors like the America’s Cup, relatively weak market disciplines (especially in the financial sector), little experience in lending or borrowing in such a different world.  There were probably even some real success stories (I’m struggling to think of them, but readers can nominate some).   And it didn’t, to any material extent, involved lending to households.

It all happened surprisingly quickly.  14 July 1984 was the election day that brought the fourth Labour government to office, and 20 October 1987 began the crash –  just over three years.  It took far longer to unwind the mess than it did to create it.  It is the deterioriation in lending standards that happened so quickly that market monitors, and central banks, really need to be watching out for.    When they start sliding, a bank can be destroyed remarkably quickly.    Such marked deteriorations in standards aren’t every day events –  we, after all, have seen no bank failure since 1990 –  and they rarely arise out of the blue.  They usually take some shock –  some innovation –  that is likely to leave regulators just as uncertain what to make of it as the lenders are. That’s inescapable, but is a reason to be cautious about just how much useful difference even the best regulators can make.   Seeing no harm for 98 years earns you no real credit (and should not either) if you aren’t much better than the lenders in the other two years each century.

The little engine that could…and other fairy tales

“I think I can.  I …..think ….I…. can, I………… think……… I…………… can” said the little blue engine”

It was almost to the top.


It was at the top.

“I ———can.”

It passed over the top of the hill and began crawling down the opposite slope.

‘I ——think——- I—— can——I—– thought——I——-could I—– thought—– I—– could. I thought I could. I thought I could.¨ I thought I could.”

And singing its triumph, it rushed on down toward the valley.

“The Little Engine That Could” is a heartwarming childhood tale, about hard work and a willingness to give anything a go.    Perhaps the Prime Minister once read the story to his kids.  But…….it is a story.   Technical capacity, not willpower, determines whether engines can pull loads, get over hills etc.   However, the Prime Minister now appears to have adopted the storybook as the basis for his latest, rather desperate, defence of his government’s immigration policy.

At his post-Cabinet press conference on Monday, the Prime Minister appeared to be –  as NBR put it –  practising his election lines.

Answering questions about New Zealand’s capacity to handle current levels of population growth caused, in part, by very high net migration, English appeared to practice attack lines for the forthcoming election campaign, saying he believed the ability to cope with these challenges was “going to be a key issue in the campaign”.

“We believe New Zealand can adjust to be a growing economy with a growing population,” he said. “Our political opponents think New Zealand isn’t up to it, it’s too hard and the solution is to shut down the growth by closing off international investment, getting out of international trade, closing down migration and settling for a kind of grey, low-growth mediocrity where the best thinking of the early (19)80s sets our political direction.”

and, from another account (which I will draw on but can’t link to)

English said that National unashamedly believes in New Zealand’s capacity to be a growing economy and that its political opponents unashamedly think New Zealand is not up to it.

Belief is one thing.  Evidence is (much) better.    Winning elections might be a different matter, but whether, and to what extent, large-scale immigration is providing long-term economic benefits to New Zealanders isn’t something to be determined by whose swagger is most convincing; who can put on the most macho stance, or who is most ready to kick sand in the face of the weedy doubters.  Wishing for benefits won’t make them happen.   Instead, it is a matter of calm balanced analysis and an assessment of the evidence of New Zealand’s experience.  We’ve had plenty of experience.   And that must be a point of some difficulty for defenders of the current large-scale non-citizen immigration policy, presumably including the Prime Minister.

After all, 100 years ago, on the best available measures, New Zealand had among the very highest material living standards anywhere.   Some combination of abundant land, a temperate climate, dramatic reductions in transport costs, and refrigerated shipping had required more people to take advantage of the new opportunities, and enabled just over 1 million people to flourish in what was, by international standards, a highly-productive economy.  There were new opportunities here, and it took new people to take earliest and greatest advantage of them.

On some measures, even as late as around 1950 we still had some of the highest material living standards around.  There hadn’t been many more new opportunities specific to New Zealand in the previous few decades.  But, on the other hand, we’d avoided wars and revolutions at home.  It wasn’t much of a surprise that we were still wealthier than almost anywhere in continental Europe.

But mostly since then we’ve been slipping down the rankings, whether measured by productivity (the better measures) or average per capita income (which can always be boosted by working ever more hours).   After World War Two, large scale immigration, actively promoted by successive governments resumed.  Even then, leading New Zealand economists were sceptical.   All manner of arguments were run for actively pursuing increased population.  There were defence arguments, there were arguments about redistributing Britain’s excess population to the land-rich Dominions, there was the apparently-reasonable argument that opportunities and incomes were just better here.

But whatever the arguments, any economic gains just seemed to keep failing to show up.  Of course, we did lots of daft things during the post-war decades.  Trade protection meant that, for example, in the early 1960s we had twenty television factories in New Zealand, and we made or assembled here all sorts of stuff that would never have passed a market test.  In the late 70s and early 80s we poured money down the drain in the absurdly expensive energy Think Big projects (while being spared Roger Douglas’s ambition for 16 state-promoted carpet factories).   But strip all that stuff away –  as we did –  and we’ve still done badly.

Productivity growth lagged that in other advanced economies in the 1950s and 60s.  Since 1970, data suggest that among advanced economies only Switzerland and, perhaps Mexico, have done worse than us.  And even since all the reforms of the late 80s and early 90s, we’ve still brought up the rear when it comes to productivity growth.  On average, we just keep slipping further behind those other advanced countries we were once so much better off than.

My friends on the right will emphasise how high taxes are, how much wasteful government spending there is, and how pervasive poor-quality regulation is.  And I have a great deal of sympathy with many of their individual points.   But the median OECD country isn’t really any better or worse than us on those scores (on some we do rather better than the median, on others quite a lot worse).   We could all do better, but the explanation for New Zealand’s continuing disappointing performance simply can’t rest in those traditional pro-market verities.

A much more plausible story is one that recognises that New Zealand’s wealth was largely built on able people, and good institutions, making the most of our natural resources.    It shouldn’t really be controversial; you can see it in our trade data.    As it always was, so it is today – the overwhelming bulk of our exports are the fruits of the land or sea (and I’ll count tourism in those numbers, since that it mostly what tourists come for).   Of course, there is small number of successful outward-oriented firms in quite different industries, but strip away the subsidised ones (export education and the film industry) and the numbers are really pretty small.

And not only are no new natural resources being made, but in New Zealand for many decades there hasn’t even been any really large new discoveries of usable natural resources that were hitherto unrecognised (or idiosyncratic shocks that strongly favoured New Zealand production from natural resources).  It is, surely, the big difference between the post World War Two experiences of New Zealand on the one hand, and Australia and Norway on the other.  The prosperity of all three countries rests largely on the natural resource products their able people, with good institutions, can sell to the rest of the world.  Norway and Australia were able to bring to market whole new resources that, while always there, were previously unknown or uneconomic to tap.  New Zealand has had nothing similar.  No new land, no new sea and –  so far –  oil/gas and mining activities that are of fairly peripheral scale.    If we’d known that difference 50 or 60 years ago, few people (if anyone) would have thought it would make a lot of sense to import lots more people to New Zealand.   Combining many more people with a key fixed factor (“land”) is simply a recipe for making it much more difficult than necessary to support top-notch living standards for the people who were already there.    And that is so even if one can get lots of productivity growth in the land-based sectors.

Of course, the standard pushback is along the lines of “but that is all old economy stuff; ideas and new technologies are the way of the future, and one can develop those industries anywhere –  all that matters is the people, the people, the people”.  Which would be fine, but the evidence seems to be against it.  When it comes making physical stuff, global value chains have become ever more important, and it is really hard for many firms located at the end of the earth to be part of such value-chains (whereas it is quite easy if you are in Slovakia or Korea).  And when it comes to ideas-based industries, counter-intuitive as it might seem, personal connections and proximity (to suppliers, markets, specialist resources, clusters of knowledge) seems to have become more important than ever.    All sorts of firms can be set up by people in New Zealand –  or in Patagonia, Port Stanley, or Windhoek.  But those firms, and those people, will usually command more value relocated nearer those global centres –  be they in Europe, North America or East Asia.   Wishing it was otherwise –  like believing I can fly –  simply doesn’t make it so.

New Zealand’s strength is its people, among the most skilled in the world, its institutions (absence of much corruption, rule of law etc) and its natural resources.    The latter are crucial –  that isn’t something of ideology, or old-school thinking, but of hard numbers –  and are, for practical purposes largely fixed.  (Add in our (self-chosen) climate change objectives and those natural resource opportunities could almost be argued to be shrinking.) But our disadvantage, and it is a severe one, is distance/location, and at least before teleportation is mastered, that disadvantage isn’t changing –  it is a land so remote that until perhaps 200 years ago, there simply was no foreign trade.

Against that backdrop, it is simply crazy to keep letting the central planners (politicians and bureaucrats) try to drive up the population.   New Zealanders know it in their own choices.   There is nothing shameful about a fairly flat population, whether in a country – plenty of rich European countries have had them for decades –  or a city.  But it seems almost heretical in New Zealand.  It makes sense that cities, or countries, grow when new opportunities abound.  The evidence to date strongly suggests they aren’t abundant here.   Some might think that a shame –  in some ways I do too –  but believing otherwise doesn’t make it happen.

Is there 100 per cent conclusive evidence?  No, in this life there hardly ever is.  But lets look at some of the straws in the wind:

  • among the very worst productivity growth in the OECD throughout the post World War Two period,
  • an export share of GDP that has stagnated and even gone backwards (in a country that once had among the very largest per capita exports anywhere),
  • a major city that has incredibly rapid population growth over decades, and yet of which even Treasury now observes “we are not seeing the agglomeration effects we would expect from Auckland’s size and scale.”

I’m for evidence-based policy.  If we’d seen more and more New Zealand firms successfully establishing themselves in international markets, and the export share of New Zealand’s GDP rising (as it typically does in successful catch-up economies), if we’d seen a decade of productivity growth materially outstripping that of the other OECD countries so that we were finally catching up, if we are seeing evidence that GDP per growth in Auckland was consistently far-outstripping that in the rest of the country (as we find in many other countries centred on knowledge-based industries) then (a) we could all celebrate, and (b) it might make sense to think about whether we should open our doors to lots of migrants.   As it is, we see none of those things.  And that with one of the largest (per capita) legal immigration programmes anywhere in the world.   It is madness; ideology (“big New Zealand” more than theoretical arguments typically) over experience.

But the Prime Minister and the National Party still “believe” apparently.  Perhaps they could show us their evidence?

I don’t like to make too much of the last few years’ experience.  Apart from anything else, data revisions could mean that stories that look good today eventually disappear like the morning mist.     But, for what it is worth, the last few years don’t do much to instill confidence.

There is the dysfunctional housing and land supply market for example.  Sure, you can argue that it really has nothing to do with immigration policy, but if you can’t or won’t fix up the land supply market –  and neither this government nor its predecessors have –  don’t give us the nonsense that New Zealand can cope with his immigration policy.   Even if there aren’t large productivity costs from those land-use restrictions (I’m open-minded on that in New Zealand) the distortion to real house prices, that makes purchasing a home more and more difficult in our cities is a standing reproach to our leaders.

And then there is productivity.  I’ve repeatedly showed charts of real GDP per hour worked in New Zealand, where the data suggest we’ve had no growth at all in the last five years (even though the dogma suggests large immigration should be generating positive productivity spillovers).  It is often hard to get timely cross-country comparisons, but earlier this month the Conference Board released their latest annual estimates of real GDP per hour worked.    Here is how New Zealand has compared over the last five years (2011 to 2016) with a sample of 40 or so other advanced countries (the group I often use –  EU members, OECD members, plus Singapore and Taiwan).

2011 to 2016 growth in real gdp phw

And it isn’t just because those other countries were recovering from deeper recessions.  Our labour productivity growth also lags behind the median of these countries for the whole period since 2007 (just before the recession).  It is just the same old story of underperformance.   Are there mitigating factors?  Probably always to some extent.   The Canterbury rebuild inevitably dragged resources away from other uses.  On the other hand, relative to our worst decade of economic underperformance –  the 1970s –  the terms of trade have mostly been pretty good this decade.

With the export share of GDP drifting further backwards, it looks more and more like an economy that exists on building for each other.  Nothing wrong with that in one sense –  people need houses, offices, roads etc –  but it isn’t how economies successfully catch-up with those richer and more productive than them.  That typically involves finding more and better things to successfully take to world markets.

In his post-Cabinet news conference, the Prime Minister was also making much of the contribution to the net migration numbers of the decline in the outflow of New Zealanders to Australia.    That, he claimed. “was a vote of confidence in New Zealand”.   Perhaps it sounds good politically to say it, but lets face reality.  New Zealanders have gone to Australia is fewer numbers mostly because the Australian labour market is tough – the unemployment rate and underemployment rates linger high, and there is increasing awareness of how much on their own New Zealanders are in Australia if things don’t work out well.     And even though the labour market is tough, look at Australia’s productivity growth (from a much higher starting point) relative to ours in the previous chart.  It isn’t so much a vote of confidence, as an unexpected loss of an escape valve.   That makes things even tougher for New Zealand, especially when the government keeps on bringing in much the same number of non-New Zealanders as ever.   In the short-term it gives the economy a boost –  demand effects exceed supply effects in the short-term –  but in the longer-term it just keeps worsening New Zealand’s relative performance on the sorts of economic measures that matter.

The Prime Minister was also at pains to stress that he believed New Zealand –  government and private sector – could and would invest enough to handle the rapid growth in the population.  The evidence has long been against him on that one.  Despite having had one of the faster population growth rates in the OECD, we’ve long had one of the lower rates of business investment among OECD countries.   In a well-functioning economy with high productivity growth etc you’d expect it to be the other way round –  more people should need more investment, of all sorts.

My arguments are generally specifically focused on New Zealand –  opportunities in Ireland or Belgium may well be different than in, say, New Zealand, Tasmania or Nebraska.   But for what it is worth, here is a scatter plot, using IMF data, of population growth rates and investment as a share of GDP for the countries the IMF classifies as advanced.  I’ve used data since 1995, simply because that is the period for which the IMF has data for all countries.   Recall that one really should expect investment as a share of GDP to be higher in countries with faster population growth than in those with lower population growth, all else equal.


IMF scatter plot

There is almost no relationship at all – and certainly not the expected upward-sloping line.  If anything, the relationship is slightly negative.  And New Zealand –  the red dot above 30 on the horizontal axis –  doesn’t stand out from the pack.  Since people do have to live somewhere, it looks a lot like rapid increases in population tend to crowd out (rather more price sensitive) business investment.    Perhaps it isn’t surprising then that many of the advanced countries with the strongest growth rates in productivity also have flat, or even falling, populations?  But, whatever the wider story, there isn’t much reason in the international data to believe the Prime Minister’s wishful thinking that enough will be invested and all will be fine.  And when your country already has some of highest real interest rates, and a persistently overvalued exchange rate, it is probably safer to believe that all won’t be just fine.

I could go one, but I just wanted to make two final brief points:

  • in his comments quoted earlier the Prime Minister suggested that somehow the alternative to continuing very high immigration targets involved “settling for a kind of grey, low-growth mediocrity where the best thinking of the early (19)80s sets our political direction”.   Personally, I’d say the very best thinking from the early 80s –  that of reformers at Treasury and Reserve Bank for example –  was very much to the point.  But even setting that to one side, the Prime Minister’s attempted slur might well rebound.  I checked out productivity growth for the nine years to 2016, compared to the nine years to 1984.  In those 9 years of Sir Robert Muldoon’s stewardship, growth in real GDP per hour worked was (according to the OECD) 9.0 per cent.   Not great.  But on the Treasury’s preferred measure of real GDP per hour worked (and even correcting for the break in the series last year), productivity growth from 2007 to 2016, totalled about 5.5 per cent.    The Prime Minister was Minister of Finance for most of that period.   (Yes, sure there were plenty of other imbalances, bad choices etc then, as well as terrible terms of trade….but they still achieved faster productivity growth).
  • I could commend to the Prime Minister a column in The Australian yesterday from Australian labour economist Judith Sloan (there are extracts and commentary on it here).   Notwithstanding Australia’s stronger productivity growth, and overall higher incomes, she slams the Australian government’s substantial immigration target (just slightly smaller, in per capita terms, than New Zealand’s), noting in particular the ‘cynical charade’ in professing concern about house prices while doing nothing about immigration (land supply –  a major problem in Australia too –  isn’t under federal government law).  Sloan isn’t just any economist.  She led the Australian Productivity Commission 2006 inquiry into Australian immigration.  And in many respects, she is about as “right-wing” as they come (to the extent such slogans have meaning), so much so that she was nominated by ACT and the Business Roundtable, and then appointed by the government, to serve on our own 2025 Taskforce a few years ago, where she was instrumental in ensuring that that Taskforce did not champion New Zealand’s immigration policy.   She doesn’t write about New Zealand these days, but it would be surprising if her conclusions about our policy were les stridently expressed than those about Australia’s

The Prime Minister can “believe” all he wants. He can attack Opposition parties all he wants (and we have yet to see specifics of what either Labour or NZ First propose), he can diss a former leading figure of the business and economic establishment, Kerry McDonald, he can ignore the counsel of someone as able in this area as Judith Sloan.  But what he seems unable to do is offer any evidence that his immigration is, or ever will, work for the benefit of New Zealanders.

The sort of productivity growth we once achieved

Over the weekend I was (as you do) dipping into the 1968 edition of the New Zealand Official Yearbook, in pursuit of some material I might write about later in the week.

As I flicked through the pages, I stumbled on a table showing labour productivity for the previous 12 years.  It wasn’t an ideal measure.  There wasn’t a good series of hours worked nationwide in those days, so this series was a measure of real GDP per person employed.  But what really caught my eye was the numbers.  Over only 12 years, labour productivity was estimated to have increased by 28.9 per cent.  And this was in an era when experts, and official agencies, were starting to worry about New Zealand’s productivity growth, and to produce data showing that we were beginning to fall behind other advanced economies.

Here is the chart showing both the old data (for 1954/55 to 1967/68) and the same measure (real GDP per person employed) for the 12 years from 2004 to 2016.  For the more recent period I have (a) used an average of the production and expenditure GDP measures, and (b) adjusted for a lift in measured employment of around 2 per cent in June last year, solely because of the change in the HLFS itself.

real gdp per person employed

Over 12 years, they managed 28.9 per cent productivity growth in the 50s and 60s (with a fairly inward looking economy, with high levels of trade protection), and in our generation  in the same period we’ve seen only about 7.9 per cent growth.

Of course, much of the slowdown is a common phenomenon seen across the advanced world, so this isn’t intended mainly as a stick with which to beat New Zealand governments specifically.    But is a sobering reflection on how little material progress we, and other countries, are now making, relative to the astonishing progress seen in those post-war decades.

And, of course, we do have better data now.   A rising share of part-time workers tends to dampen GDP per person employed.  Here is real GDP per hour worked for the same modern period – ie 2004 to 2016.

real gdp per hour worked 04 to 16

Overall growth has been a bit stronger (12.1 per cent in total) on this better measure.  But this measure also puts the New Zealand specific problems into sharper relief.  We’ve had no productivity growth at all, on this measure, for four or five years.  And that isn’t a global phenomenon, just a New Zealand one.

Could we manage 28.9 per cent productivity growth over 12 years again?  It is only an average annual growth rate of a touch over 2 per cent, and the gaps now between New Zealand average productivity and that in the leading OECD economies are so large (they are more than 60 per cent higher than us) that it really should be achievable.   But it would probably require, as a first step, giving up the rhetoric suggesting that really everything is just fine in New Zealand, and starting to focus on measures that might make a real difference.




Maori and immigration

Early last month, just before I headed off to the beach, a couple of readers forwarded me references to an article written in about 1992 by the late Professor (of Maori Studies at the University of Auckland) Ranginui Walker, headed New Zealand Immigration and the Political Economy.  Having done no more than glance through it, I included a link to the article at the end of a post and went on holiday.

On my return, I sat down and read Walker’s article more carefully, including in the light of the new New Zealand Initiative advocacy report on immigration, which touches lightly on issues of how we should think about New Zealand immigration policy in light of the place of Maori in New Zealand.

Walker’s piece is interesting for two things: first, that is was written in the quite early days of something like the current immigration policy (policy having been reworked considerably over the 1986 to 1991 period), and second because it is a distinctively Maori-influenced perspective.   (Incidentally, Walker’s biographer was Prof Paul Spoonley, now a leading (and MBIE-funded) pro-immigration academic.   It would be interesting to know what Spoonley makes of Walker’s somewhat sceptical assessment of New Zealand’s immigration policy written at a time when the target non-citizen inflows were smaller than they are now (and the stock of migrants was much smaller than it is now).)

Walker argued that modern immigration policy was a matter covered by the Treaty of Waitangi, consistent with his attempt to re-insert the Treaty into contemporary policymaking.  He cited words from the preamble to the Treaty

The original charter for immigration into New Zealand is in the preamble of the Treaty of Waitangi. There, it states that Her Majesty Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom:

“has deemed it necessary, in consequence of the great number of Her Majesty’s subjects who have already settled in New Zealand, and the rapid extension of Emigration from both Europe and Australia which is still in progress, to constitute and appoint a functionary properly authorized to treat with the Aborigines of New Zealand for the recognition of her Majesty’s sovereign authority over the whole or any part of those islands.”

And went on to argue that

The present generation of Maori leaders abide by the agreement of their ancestors to allow immigration into New Zealand from the countries nominated in the preamble of the treaty, namely Europe, Australia and the United Kingdom. But, for any variation of that agreement to be validated, they expect the Government to consult them as the descendants of the Crown’s treaty partner.

Asian immigration, in particular, so it was argued, required formal consultation between the Crown and Maori.  You might find that a stretch –  I do  –  but it does focus attention on the question of just what Maori leaders in the first half of the 19th century were agreeing to when it came to immigration.  I suspect it wasn’t a set of policies that would reduce Maori to a small minority, marginalised politically, in their own land.

British and settler control over New Zealand developed gradually, from the first European settlement at Oihi through to the end of Maori/land wars in the early 1870s, by some mix of acquiescence, agreement (notably the Treaty), annexation  –  and military defence/conquest.  I wrote a post last year drawing attention to a lecture by 19th century Premier Sir Julius Vogel who had noted unashamedly, looking back on the origins of his own huge public works and immigration policy, the role played by a desire to secure the North Island militarily, and so shift the population balance that European dominance of New Zealand would be secured for the future.

I will tell you the real facts, and I think I may say there are only two or three men now living who can speak with equal authority. The Public Works’ Policy seemed to the Government the sole alternative to a war of extermination with the natives. It comprised the construction of railways and roads, and the introduction of a large number of European immigrants. The Government argued that if they could greatly increase the population of the North Island and open up the means of communication through the Island, and at the same time give employment to the Maoris, and make their lands really valuable, they would render impossible any future war on a large scale. They recognised that in point of humanitarianism there was no comparison between the peaceful and warlike alternatives.

In the almost 150 years since then, there have been a variety of motivations espoused for promoting immigration to New Zealand –  including (external) defence, relieving population pressures in Britain, sharing the great opportunities here, possible economies of scale, and more latterly encouraging greater diversity and encouraging possible productivity spillovers.  But whatever the argument, the effect of immigration policy has consistently been to reduce the relative place of Maori in New Zealand.  Non-citizen immigrants are almost inevitably non-Maori, and in a unitary democracy, overall voter numbers count.  Each immigrant lowers the relative weight on Maori in decisionmaking in New Zealand.  And to the extent that immigrants assimilate, it typical isn’t with Maori culture.

In his article, Ranginui Walker touches on one of the ways in which policymakers have sought to avoid confronting the issue.  Writing of the 1986 review of immigration policy he notes

The review asserted that New Zealand is a country of immigrants, including the Maori, thus denying their prior right of discovery and millennial occupation of the land. Defining the Maori as immigrants negates their first-nation status as people of the land by lumping them in with the European immigrants who took over the country, as well as later immigrants from the Pacific Rim. Furthermore, the review disguised the monocultural and Euro-centric control over the governing institutions of the country by claiming that immigration has molded the national character as a multi-cultural Pacific country. This multi-cultural ideology is a direct negation of the Maori assertion of the primacy of biculturalism.

In other words, if Maori are just another minority there is no distinctive place, or no particular need to be sensitive to the implications of immigration policy for them.

A few years later, the Business Roundtable (forerunner to the New Zealand Initiative) commissioned Australian-academic Wolfgang Kaspar to write a paper on immigration policy in a New Zealand context.  Kaspar –  and the Roundtable –  were dead keen on freeing up immigraton, seeing it as one important element in a strategy to lift New Zealand’s economic and productivity performance.    Commenting on how Kaspar treats the Maori issue, Walker wrote

Kaspar’s views on Maori policy are also a matter for concern. With few exceptions, most Maori would reject his sooth-saying that they should not fear becoming a smaller minority in a situation where land and resources would be “competed away.” Like Job’s comforters, he says: “They (Maori) could instead live in a nation of many minorities where the Maori minority fitted in much better as an equal social group.” Kaspar’s view is advanced with the ignorance and naivete of the outsider who knows nothing of the 150-year struggle of the Maori against an unjust colonial regime. The reduction of the Maori to a position as one of many minorities negates their status as the people of the land with bi-cultural treaty rights and enables the government to neutralize their claims for justice more effectively than it does now. Furthermore, new migrants have no commitment to the treaty. For these reasons, the ideology of multiculturalism as a rationale for immigration must be rejected. Although its primary rationale is economic, the government’s immigration policy must be seen for what it is — a covert strategy to suppress the counter-hegemonic struggle of the Maori by swamping them with outsiders who are not obliged to them by the treaty.

One doesn’t need to be comfortable with the rhetoric – I’m not – to see Walker’s point.  Whether by design (less probably now) or as a side-effect that the policy designers are largely indifferent to, large scale immigration simply reduces the relative significance of Maori in New Zealand.  It has done that in new ways in recent decades as much of the immigration has been non-Anglo.  For decades, immigration was mostly British, which left Maori as a small minority in their own country, but as at least the only “other” group.  Modern migration patterns risk treating Maori as simply one minority among many –  perhaps even, in time, with outcomes similar to (say) California where there is no longer any majority ethnicity.

Some of Walker’s article is now quite dated, but I think it is still worth reading if only because such perspectives don’t seem to get much airplay in the mainstream policy discussions.  And when occasionally people do make the point about large scale immigration undermining the role of Maori and the Treaty, they are often simply batted away with rather glib reassurances that today’s politicians –  who can make no commitments about how politics plays out 20 years or more hence – simply can’t back up.

(Although it isn’t my focus today, the first person to refer me to the Walker article highlighted this quote about the emphasis on large scale immigration to New Zealand

this policy does not take into account the fact that New Zealand is a primary producing country, it is resource poor in terms of minerals and oil, and is the most distantly placed country from world markets. It is difficult to produce competitively priced manufactured goods with the plussage of high freight costs on top of manufacturing costs.

Walker wasn’t an economist, but his observation is passing doesn’t seem to have been undermined by developments in the last 25 years, in which New Zealand’s overall economic/productivity performance has languished, despite the huge influx of new people.)

Last week, the New Zealand Initiative released their advocacy report, making the case for continued – or perhaps even increased –  high levels of non-citizen immigration.  It is an unsatisfactory report in several respects –  for example, the subtitle “Why migrants make good kiwis” seems to rather deliberately(?) miss the point that should guide policy; do migrants make existing New Zealanders better off –  and I’ll have quite a bit to say about various aspects of it over the next week or two.    But today I just wanted to focus on the treatment of the Maori dimension.

As the report notes

Many Maori too are concerned about immigration, seeing it as a threat to their unique position as the first people to settle in New Zealand


The Election Survey reveals that Māori are significantly less favourable towards immigration than other New Zealanders, and Māori are significantly more likely to want reduced immigration numbers. They are also less likely to think immigration is good for the economy, and more likely to see immigration as a threat. This finding remains even after controlling for age, religion, marital status, home ownership, household income, education, gender, and survey year.

The authors note

This is clearly a concern for New Zealand, where Māori and the Treaty of Waitangi occupy a special cultural and constitutional role in society and national identity. Given the low barriers to obtaining voting rights in New Zealand, there may be a fear that allowing migrants to express these views at the ballot box would dilute Māoridom’s special standing.

That is all fine, but what sort of response do they propose?

The range of policy responses to this problem are fairly limited. Cultural education programmes for migrants may sound appealing, but it is unclear how successful they would be in changing views. Some migrants may simply see it as a tick box exercise to be endured to gain entry into the country, and may not have the intended effect on
migrant attitudes towards Māori and their place in New Zealand.

Indeed, and even if it it had the “intended effect” that wouldn’t alter the inevitable shift in the population balance.  Maori –  like others –  might reasonably be assumed to want power/influence, not just understanding or consideration.

We have also considered a values statement, such as the one used in Australia. All visitors to the country are required to sign this document, affirming to abide by Australia’s largely Western values. Although this idea is appealing, it has two main weaknesses. First, New Zealand has yet to formally define its cultural values. Unlike Australia, or many other nation states, New Zealand does not have a single constitutional document. Instead, New Zealand’s constitutional laws are found in numerous documents, including the Constitution Act 1986, the Treaty of Waitangi, the Acts of Parliament, and so on. This allows the nation state of New Zealand to function, but does little to define what it is to be a New Zealander, and what set of national values need be upheld. Until this is done, it would be difficult to craft a robust and useful values statement. Even if it were possible, without constitutional protection, it would be subject to change according to political whim. Second, any values statement would still suffer from the pro forma weakness that a cultural education programme is subject to.

I don’t disagree that a “values statement” isn’t the answer, partly because in a bi-cultural nation there will be differing values –  things that count, ways of seeing and doing things –  even between the two cultures.    But they go on.

A partial answer to this problem may be to shift the burden from the immigration system to the education system. The national curriculum, which acts as a reference guide for schools in New Zealand, places significant emphasis on learning Te Reo and the cultural practices of Māori.   This may do little to address concerns about the attitudes primary migrants have towards Māori in New Zealand, but may influence the attitudes of second generation migrants. This is far from a complete solution, and monitoring attitudes of migrants to Māori, and vice versa, is advisable.

Indoctrination by the education system would seem equally likely to provoke backlashes, and –  of course –  does nothing to deal with the population imbalance issue.  As the final rather limp sentence concedes,  the report hasn’t actually got much to offer on this issue at all.  They go on to conclude

There are also cultural dilution concerns of the Māori community regarding high levels of immigration threatening their unique constitutional position in New Zealand. These areas require attention from policymakers if the current rates of immigration are to be maintained.

But surely if think-tank reports are to be of any real value they need to confront these issues and offer serious solutions, not just kick the issue back to busy and hard-pressed policymakers?

By the time we get to the conclusion of the whole report, things are weaker still

Māori views on immigration policy should be welcomed. A more inclusive process is needed to instruct migrants on the key place Māori hold in New Zealand society.

It is both condescending in tone –  both towards Maori and to migrants –  while not actually substantively addressing the real issues, which aren’t just about sensitivity, but about power.

It is difficult not to conclude that in putting the report together the New Zealand Initiative had a strong prior view on the merits of large scale immigration globally, but could do no more than handwaving when it came to an important consideration in thinking about immigration policy and its implication in New Zealand.   Of course, libertarians –  as most of the Initiative people would probably claim to be, or accept description as  –  tend to have little sense of national identity or sub-national cultural identity; their analysis all tends to proceed at the level of the individual.  But most citizens, and voters, don’t share that sort of perspective.

I don’t want to sound like a bleeding heart liberal in writing this, or to suggest a degree of identification with, or interest in, Maori issues and culture which I don’t actually have.  My family have been here since around 1850, but I have no family ties with Maori, whether by blood or by marriage, and am quietly proud of my own Anglo heritage.  In many respects I probably identify more easily with people and cultures in other traditionally Anglo countries than I do with Maori.  But this seems to me a basic issue of fairness, including a recognition that (empirically), there is such a meaningful group as Maori, and that on average they see some –  but far from all – issues differently than non-Maori.  No doubt there is about as much diversity among Maori as there is, say, among Anglo New Zealanders, but the differing identities are meaningful and show up in various places, including in voting behaviour.    And the inescapable point remains that New Zealand is the only long-term home of Maori.

I’m not one for apologising for history, and of course we can’t change history.  But current policies changes the present and especially the future.  Every temperate-climate region in the Americas and Australasia saw indigenous populations swamped in the last few centuries –  between the power of the gun, and the prospects of greater prosperity that superior technology and economic institutions offered.  Compared with, say, Canada, Australia, the United States, and Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, the indigenous population remained a larger share of the total in New Zealand.

This isn’t mostly a post about economics.  It is impossible to do a controlled experiment, but I think there is little doubt that the indigenous populations of all those countries of European settlement are better off economically today than they’d have been without the European migration –  even though in each of those countries indigenous populations tend to underperform other citizens economically.  But, those gains have been made, and at what cost have they come in terms of self-determination and control?    It isn’t easy for members of majority populations to appreciate what it must mean for a group to have become a disempowered minority in their own land.  For some it is probably not an issue at all, for others perhaps it is of prime importance, for most perhaps somewhere in between, important at some times and on some issues, and not important at all on others.

If there were demonstrably large economic gains now, to existing New Zealanders, from continued (or increased) large scale immigration there might be some hard choices to make.  Perhaps many Maori might even accept a further diminution of their relative position, as the price of much greater prosperty.   But there is simply no evidence of such economic gains –  whether in the New Zealand Initiative report or in other analysis of the New Zealand position.     If so, why should we ask of –  or simply impose on (we don’t have a federal system, with blocking power to minorities) –  Maori New Zealanders a continuing rapid undermining of their relative position in the population, and in voting influence in New Zealand?

Much of this comes to, as in many ways it always has, fairly crude power politics.  But the quality of a democracy should be judged in significant part by how it protects, and provides vehicles for the representation of the interests of, minorities.  A minority population, that was once the entire population of New Zealand, seems to have a reasonable claim to a particular interest in that regard.  Advocates of large scale immigration to New Zealand –  whether politicians or think tanks or business people-  might reasonably be asked to confront the issue, and our history, more directly.



New Zealand and the Great Depression

It is a trifle unsettling to check out the Geonet pages, notice the large cluster of continuing aftershocks around “25kms east of Seddon”, and then to realise that looking out my window I can more or less see that spot.  It surprises me quite how much damage and disruption Wellington has already had despite being several hundred kilometres from Culverden and the site of Sunday night’s major quake.

US politics and a good book make worthwhile distractions.

I’ve just been reading The Broken Decade: Prosperity, Depression and Recovery in New Zealand 1928-39, by the local historian Malcolm McKinnon.  It is, as far as I’m aware, the first substantial scholarly history of the depression years in New Zealand.

The Great Depression was a tough time for many people in many countries, New Zealand not excluded.

Whereas for the UK, the fall in real per capita GDP wasn’t much larger than the experience in the 2008/09 recession (and the 1930s recovery was faster), in New Zealand real GDP per capita is estimated to have fallen by almost 20 per cent.

nz-great-depressionNo wonder there was a net migration outflow during the Depression –  small, by the standards of some we’ve seen since, but then the travel costs back to the UK were much greater than today’s three hour flight to Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne.

What made it so tough for New Zealand?  We went into the Depression with staggeringly high levels of debt – high government debt (perhaps around 170 per cent of GDP just before the Depression), and a highly negative net international investment position.  Most of the external debt was owed by the government (central and local), and most government debt was external.  And within New Zealand there was a huge level of farm debt –  mostly not owed to banks (which didn’t do that sort of long-term finance) but to banks, to relatives, and to other individual private sector entities.  Many farmers bought their farm, and the seller (whether family or other) left mortgage funding in the farm to be paid off over the subsequent decades.

When export prices, and consumer prices, fell very sharply, the debt overhangs became much more pronounced.  In respect of the farm debt, wealth was reallocated among New Zealanders (lenders better off, borrowers worse off, at least if debt servicing was maintained).  In respect of the public debt, the servicing burden became much more difficult, and a larger proportion of New Zealand’s nominal GDP has to be devoted to servicing that debt.  Nominal GDP is estimated to have fallen by a third between 1929 and 1932 –  and export receipts fell 40 per cent.  The additional servicing burden was particularly severe on the foreign debt which still had to be serviced in sterling, as New Zealand’s own newly-emerging currency gradually depreciated against sterling.

The extent of the fall in activity in some cyclically-sensitive sectors was pretty stark: building permits issued for new houses and flats fell by almost 80 per cent.

But, no doubt as ever, it wasn’t all contraction and decline.  Electrical appliances were becoming ever more widely adopted, and with it electricity generation continued to expand right through the Depression years.


Perhaps even more striking was dairy sector production and exports.  Sheep numbers in 1935 were almost unchanged from the level in 1929, but the number of dairy cows in milk was 42 per cent higher than in 1929.  And here is total dairy production.


I’m not sure I understand quite what was going on in that sector: presumably some combination of new technology, the desperation that came from the high levels of debt hanging over these farmers, and low  direct marginal production costs (family labour) made it worthwhile to markedly increase cow numbers and overall milk production despite the low international prices for dairy products.

And substantial as the overall drop in real per capita income was, the fall was spread very unevenly across the population (as is no doubt the case in every recession).  Unemployment was high –  estimates vary, but even among adult males the unemployment rate probably peaked near 15 per cent (I’d give you 1991 comparisons if only the Statistics New Zealand website were not down in the earthquake aftermath). And there was a lot of resistance to wage cuts during the Depression, but for many of those who kept their jobs –  and especially those in salaried jobs, not affected by cuts in overtime hours – real purchasing power actually increased during the Depression.  My own grandfathers were in their mid-late 20s when the Depression began –  both were in work throughout, and both bought new houses in the early 1930s.  As McKinnon highlights, as much through his large selection of photos as from the text, “life went on”: society ladies graced race meetings, the All Blacks still played, and so on.

McKinnon’s book advertises itself as focused on the politics of the period, rather than the economics, and although there is a lot of economic-related material in the book, New Zealand is still lacking its first book-length economic history of the era (although of course it is treated to some extent in the few economic histories of New Zealand). Putting New Zealand’s experience systematically in cross-country comparative perspective (eg New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Ireland –  and perhaps Uruguay and Argentina –  and, say, the United States and the United Kingdom) would be fascinating.

It is a richly documented book, but with some gaps.  For a book avowedly focused on the political side, it was surprising that the author had made use of New Zealand official archives, but not those of the UK –  key export market, key source of finance in a stressed period, and of course key international relationship more generally.   And even locally, although the book covers the whole period 1928 to 1939, there is very little attention to developments on the right of politics after 1935, including the formation of the National Party.

In terms of policy responses to the Great Depression, my own sense is that the politicians did about the best they could.  With hindsight it was clear that a substantial currency deprecation would have been a helpful remedy –  perhaps the single most potent response New Zealand could have deployed in the face of a severe global downturn.  But in 1929 there still wasn’t a strong sense of New Zealand even having its own currency(ies), let alone it being something that our government could control the value of.  As time went on, the option of a more structured devaluation became a centrepiece of the policy debate –  advocated by many economists –  but even then the dividing lines weren’t clear cut.  Export industries generally welcomed the idea, but workers and unions –  focused on the expected rise in the cost of imports – didn’t.  And for a government with a massive foreign debt, the additional servicing burden from a currency depreciation was a certainty, while the expected increase in tax revenue over time was no more than a hypothesis.  When the government finally acted in early 1933 to formally depreciate the exchange rate, it prompted the then Minister of Finance, William Downie Stewart, one of ablest figures then in politics, to resign in protest.  For several years afterwards, the devaluation remained a point of political contention (and even scholarly contention –  at the time the US academic Kindleberger, later famous, argued that our devaluation had largely just pushed down the international price of dairy products).

Of course, the standard Keynesian line is that countries should have used fiscal policy more aggressively to attempt to maintain demand through the Depression years.  Sadly, New Zealand was already debt constrained, and external debt markets were fragile at best.  Additional public spending (even if totally domestically financed) might have boosted demand, but it would also have put more pressure on the balance of payments (in a non floating exchange rate world).    A few years ago, in Paul Goldsmith’s book on the history of the New Zealand tax system, I stumbled on what should surely be the last word on the possibility of New Zealand borrowing and spending more back then, from Keynes himself.

Visiting London in late 1932 (after the worst of the disruption to the UK external capital markets was over), Minister of Finance Downie Stewart met Keynes.  Stewart recorded in his diary:

“I asked him if he would borrow if he was in New Zealand in order to get through the crisis.  He said, “Yes, certainly if I were you I would borrow if I could, but if you asked me as a lender I doubt whether I would lend to you.”

By that time, the fall in the price level had taken the level of government debt to well over 200 per cent of GDP.

The servicing burden of high levels of public debt was a major issue in many countries during the Depression.  In some cases, it led to direct defaults: Germany, for example, simply ceased paying reparations (and New Zealand, as a small recipient, was a loser from that).   The UK, and various other European countries, ended up defaulting on their war debts to the United States (the UK also suspended some of our war debts to them).  In other cases –  not just involving government to government debt – the approaches were more subtle, but they involved effective defaults nonetheless.  In the United States, for example, government bonds had typically been payable in gold.   The Roosevelt administration had those clauses revoked, and at much the same time went off gold, effectively depriving holders of a large proportion of their contracted returns.

In New Zealand (and Australia) there was a different approach again.  In respect of domestic government bonds, holders were simply forced to accept a lower interest rate on existing debt than they had contracted for  –  as part of the legislation, if they didn’t accept the exchange, they would face a punitive tax to achieve the same effect.  I wrote about that interesting episode in a Reserve Bank Bulletin article a few years ago.

What was interesting, in both countries, was the reluctance to do anything about the foreign debt (much the largest component of both countries’ public debts).  The unexpected fall in the price level, and in nominal incomes, had massively increased the burden of the debt.  But both countries still needed access to those funding markets, to rollover maturities at very least.  Neither country defaulted on central government external debt, focusing instead on the goal (about which they could do nothing much directly) of raising the world price level, so as to lower the effective servicing burden.  That finally happened, although in New Zealand’s case market unease about New Zealand’s external debt remained a serious concern –  much more so than anything in the last 30 years –  right down to the outbreak of the war.  Had it not been for the war, external default might well have happened in 1939/40.

This has been a fairly discursive post.  There are a lot of other aspect of the Depression in New Zealand I could write about –  especially the handling of distressed farm debt –  but I’ll save those for another day.  For anyone interested in New Zealand’s experience of the Depression, I’d recommend McKinnon’s book.  It is a sobering remind of an event that still shapes perceptions, and where –  among the now very old –  memories are still often seared by the experience.  Never again, people hoped for decades.  And then there was 21st century Greece.