A picture in continuity

Here is a summary chart of the real GDP outcomes for the June quarter (expenditure and production), the hours outcomes (QES and HLFS), and the implied change in labour productivity (real GDP per hour worked), taking the average change in hours worked from the average growth in real GDP.

GDP q2 1

There was quite a bit more activity all round, but it took a larger percentage increase in labour inputs (hours) to get the published percentage increase in output (GDP).  In other words, labour productivity fell: not just the growth rate, but the level.

Here is the same chart for the previous quarter.

GDP q2 2

It was worse: less GDP growth, but also an even larger fall in GDP per hour worked.   Productivity growth for the first half of the year was -0.65 per cent.  That isn’t an annualised number, but an absolute change; a significant fall.

Perhaps you think this just shows how dreadful the new government is.  Here is the same chart showing the cumulative growth rates for the last six months of last year (in blue) and the first half of this year (in orange).

GDP q2 3

To me, the similarities are (much) more striking than the differences.    Importantly, the level of labour productivity fell in both halves.

Looked at from a productivity perspective –  and that really is where one should focus, especially when the unemployment rate is not too far from the NAIRU – it is a pretty dreadful performance.    Of course, simply looking at two six month periods on their own doesn’t tell one much, but nothing in these data is inconsistent with the poor productivity record for some years now.

And neither the last government nor this one appears to have any serious ideas for, or any serious interest in, fixing this failure.

 

 

An age of diminished expectations?

The Westpac McDermott Miller consumer confidence survey results are out this morning.  To the extent they get any media coverage, no doubt the focus will be on the headline result.  Here is the summary chart.

westpac 1

In Westpac’s words

Consumer confidence fell sharply in September, taking it to its lowest in six years.

There probably isn’t much predictive value in these results for actual economic data, but I find the results interesting in their own right: how people generally are feeling about their economic fortunes and the economy more broadly.  After all, respondents aren’t just the “ideological enemies” of the government.

The Westpac results don’t seem out of line with the most recent Colmar-Brunton poll (taken six weeks ago) in which respondents are asked a single question.

“And do you think during the next 12 months the economy will be in a better state than at present, or in a worse state?”

colmar brunton

The public no longer seem very optimistic at all.

But in some ways I was more interested in the longer-term trends in a couple of the sub-components of the Westpac index.   For example,

westpac 2.png

People are now less optimistic about improvements in their own personal position than at any time in the last 30 years outside periods when the economy was already in the midst of a recession (and materially lower than in the fairly shallow 1997/98 recession).  And look at the contrast between confidence levels from say 1994 to 2007 (across two different governments) and those now.  It looks a lot like a fairly steady trend decline.

And then there is the question about the longer-term prospects for the economy itself.  Respondents might not know much analytically about the issue, but their perceptions are interesting nonetheless.

westpac 3

The latest observation isn’t startlingly bad (and there was that sharp –  but brief – dip a couple of years ago) but look how diminished expectations are now (last three years or so) relative to the entire history of the series.  There are individual quarters that are weaker (though note, not in the 2008/09 or 1997/98 recessions) but in thirty years there has been no three year period where medium-term optimism has been weaker than over the last three years (under National and Labour governments).   And this pessimism isn’t tied to the last recession –  look how upbeat people briefly were in the couple of years after the recession ended.

(The medium-term picture is less bad in the ANZ’s consumer confidence survey, (which has a much shorter run of data) and it would interesting to know the precise question asked, to help understand that difference.)

Then again, in an economy that has managed very little labour productivity growth in the last five or six years, and none at all in the last three years, perhaps it shouldn’t surprise.

real GDP phw jul 18

In an economy where the promises of economic reform decades ago came to little  (for younger readers, that is the then Minister of Finance back in 1989/90)

caygill 1989 expectations

And where none of the political parties – especially not National or Labour that have led all our governments – seem to care much if at all, or have any serious proposals for turning around the continuing decades of underperformance, isn’t the public quite rational in being much less optimistic than they were?

A more interesting question is why they/we don’t find a way of demanding something better.

Having read the Our Plan speech

The Prime Minister’s speech on Sunday has attracted quite a lot of, generally not very favourable, attention.  I was interested in a few things that were there, and a few others that weren’t, particularly when compared to the Speech from the Throne that inaugurated the government’s programme last November.

The first was the apparent lack of ambition around the economy.    The Prime Minister continues to repeat the meaningless claim that “we’ve enjoyed enviable GDP growth in recent years”, as if headline GDP – as distinct from GDP per capita or GDP per hour worked –  means anything at all.    Here’s the track record: it has been pretty poor over the last couple of years (we’ll get an update on Thursday).

gdp pc to mar 18

Productivity growth has been even worse, and for longer.  Here, for example, is the comparison with Australia.

aus nz rgdp phw

The Prime Minister seems to sort of know there is an issue.

We cannot continue to rely on an economy built on population growth, an overheated housing market and volatile commodity markets. It’s not sustainable, and it risks wasting our potential.

That’s why our first priority is to grow and share more fairly New Zealand’s prosperity.

That means being smarter in how we work. It means an economy that produces and exports higher value goods, and one that makes sure that all New Zealanders share in the rewards of economic growth.

So what will we do?

First, we need a concerted effort to lift the prosperity side of the ledger. Working alongside business, we will encourage innovation, productivity and build a skilled workforce better equipped for the 21st century.

But what Our Plan has to offer is slim pickings indeed.  The only specific is

We are doing that by bringing back significant support for businesses to expand their investment in research and development through the R&D tax incentive, a key component of building a new innovative economy.

Perhaps you think R&D subsidies are a good idea. I’m rather more sceptical, and worry that there is no sign the government has thought hard about why firms don’t regard it as being in their interests to spend more here on R&D.   But don’t just take it from me.  I was interested that in the Secretary to the Treasury’s speech about productivity a couple of weeks back, which I wrote about here , there was no mention at all of R&D subsidies/credits as any part of the answer to our sustained underperformance.  If R&D subsidies were the answer, it would have to be a pretty small question, and our economic underperformance is much worse than that.

It was also interesting that the tax system seemed to have disappeared from the list of answers to our economic underperformance.    In the Speech from the Throne this

The government will review the tax system, looking at all options to improve its structure, fairness and balance, including better supporting regions and exporters, addressing the capital gain associated with property speculation and ensuring that multinationals contribute their share. Penalties for corporate fraud and tax evasion will increase.

and in various speeches since the Minister of Finance has continued to talk up tax system changes,  but in Our Plan on Sunday the only reference I could see to the tax system was those R&D subsidies.

And then there was this

After all, we have always been inclined to do things differently. Or to do them first.

Whether it’s Kate Sheppard championing the right to vote, Michael Joseph Savage designing the welfare state, or Sir Edmund Hillary reaching brave new heights – we don’t mind if no one else has done something before we do.

But we do mind being left behind.

and

You asked us to make sure New Zealand wasn’t left behind.

But the problem is, Prime Minister, that we’ve fallen badly behind, and nothing you or your predecessors did seems to be stopping, let alone reversing that decline.  Nothing.

Here are a couple of productivity charts, comparing New Zealand and some other advanced countries in 1970 (when the OECD data start) and 2016 (the last year the OECD has data for all countries).

First the G7 countries.

G7 comparison

As recently as 1970, real GDP per hour worked in New Zealand was more or less that of the median G7 country (100 years ago, we would have been ahead of all but one, and basically level with the US).    Now it would take a 30 per cent lift in New Zealand productivity –  with no changes in the G7 countries –  to get us back to parity with these big advanced economies.

And here is the same comparison for the (small) Nordic countries.

nordic comparison

It would take a 50 per cent lift in New Zealand productivity –  all else equal –  to match the median of these countries.    Even in 1970 we’d fallen behind them, but 100 years ago  –  in fact even when Michael Joseph Savage was in office – we were richer and more productive than all of them.

We’ve been left behind, and our politicians show no sign of doing anything to remedy the failure.

One could say much the same about housing.  The Speech from the Throne –  only 10 months ago –  was actually quite encouraging.  There were hints –  nothing specific of course –  that the government might actually want to lower the real prices of houses, reversing at least some of the disgraceful lift in house and land prices that policy (various strands interacting) has helped deliver over the last 25 years or so.

But what about in Our Plan?  There is talk of warm dry homes, and of the Kiwibuild lottery for the lucky few (“I cannot tell you how exciting it was to open the ballot for those first homes this week”), but of the market generally only this

“But not everyone wants to own, or can right now.”

And nothing –  at all – about what the government might do to systematically transform the outlook for those –  all too many –  who can’t.  It might be terribly exciting for the Prime Minister that a few can win the lottery –  as no doubt it is in the weekly Lotto draw –  but in a serious government wouldn’t it be much more satisfying to have laid the ground work for systematic, across the board, affordability?  In a country with so much land (in particular), it is pure political choice that we fail to have better outcomes.

There were a couple of other bits that took my eye.  There was this, in prominent bold letters.

That’s why our first priority is to ensure that everyone who is able to, is either earning, learning, caring or volunteering.

Frankly, what business is it of the government’s.  We aren’t resources at their disposal.  Provided someone isn’t a financial burden on the state, why does the Prime Minister think it is for her to suggest –  nay propose to “ensure” – that a life of leisure is not an option?  The mindset is disconcerting to say the least.

And then there was the international dimension.

That brings me to our final priority area- creating an international reputation we can be proud of.

In this uncertain world, where long accepted positions have been met with fresh challenge – our response lies in the approach that we have historically taken.  Speaking up for what we believe in, pitching in when our values are challenged and working tirelessly to draw in partners with shared views.

This Government’s view is that we can pursue this with more vigor – across the Pacific through the Pacific reset, in disarmament and in climate change, and in our defence of important institutions.

Ultimately though, my hope is that New Zealanders recognise themselves in the approach this Government takes.

I’d be ashamed if I recognised myself in the approach this government –  and its predecessors – take.  A government that is slow and reluctant to condemn Russia’s involvement in the Skripal poisoning, a government that appears to say nothing about the situation in Burma, a government that says not a word about the Saudi-led US-supported abuses in Yemen (trade deals to pursue I suppose).  And then there is the People’s Republic of China.

The Prime Minister apparently won’t say a word (certainly not openly –  and yet she talks about “transparent” government) about:

  • the aggressive and illegal militarisation of the South China Sea,
  • the growing military threat to Taiwan, a free and independent democracy,
  • about the Xinjiang concentration camps, the similarly extreme measures used against Falun Gong, or the growing repression of Christian churches in China,
  • about new PRC efforts to ensure that all Chinese corporates are treated, and operate, as agents of the state (is the Prime Minister going to do anything about Huawei for example?)
  • about the activities of the PRC in attempting to subvert democracy and neutralise criticism in a growing list of countries.

And what is she going to do about the Belt and Road Initiative, which the previous government –  in the specific form of Simon Bridges – signed onto last year, enthusing about a “fusion of civilisations”?

But then, why would we be surprised by this indifference.  Her own party president, presumably with her imprimatur, praises Xi Jinping and the regime.  Her predecessor, Phil Goff, had his mayoral campaign heavily funded by a large donation from donors in the PRC.   And she won’t even criticise the fact that a former PRC intelligence official, a keen supporter of the PRC, sits in our Parliament, refusing to answer any substantive questions about his position.

If those are her values, they certainly aren’t mine. I hope they aren’t those of most New Zealanders.

If her “response lies in the approach that we have historically taken” it must seem pretty unrecognisable to the people, many on her side of politics, who protested French nuclear tests, or against apartheid in South Africa (and associated rugby tours).   And would surely be unrecognisable to the ministers and Prime Ministers of that first Labour government, who were among those (internationally) most willing to take a stand against Italian and German aggression and repression in the 1930s.

 

The Secretary to the Treasury and productivity

As I noted in Saturday’s post about The Treasury, the Secretary to the Treasury –  he of the rushed citizenship presumably on the grounds of some exceptional services the previous government thought he might offer to New Zealand –  gave a speech last week on productivity.

One can feel a little sorry for senior public servants venturing into the public domain.  After all, there are limits as to what the head of a government department can really say, while still retaining the confidence of his/her minister (let alone that of the State Services Commissioner).  Political masters change and with those changes there are changes in what can’t really be said in public by their most senior advisers.  All of which is probably a good reason why heads of government departments shouldn’t really give any but the most anodyne (or perhaps obscurely technical) public addresses (in fact, most simply keep quiet in public – do a search for speeches by the Secretary of Justice or the chief executive of MBIE and you won’t find much, if anything).  After all, their primary job is to advise ministers, not to act as public lobbyists for their own policy preferences  Upon leaving office they are, of course, free to champion whatever causes they like.

But all that assumes some idealised fine public servants, who have laboured to generate judicious but penetrating insights.  Wise men and women whose words shed light in dark corners, enrich our understanding, and could –  if only we listened – help resolve some of these intractable challenges that face any modern government and society.

And then there are the Makhlouf speeches.  I written about several of them here (eg here, here, here and here).  They often read fluently enough at a first glance, before quickly turning to dust under any close examination.

Last week’s effort wasn’t that much better.  At least the Secretary to the Treasury was talking about productivity –  something I noted was strangely totally absent from The Treasury’s Briefing to the Incoming Minister last year – but he didn’t have a credible or robust story to tell.

The speech was delivered in Queenstown, so Makhlouf began with some local colour –  some good, some bad.  Among the less positive indicators was

The mean income for people in the Queenstown-Lakes District in 2017 was about $51,000 compared with the national mean of $59,000.  With low incomes but the highest average weekly rental cost in the country and an average house value of more than $1.1 million, the housing affordability problem in Queenstown is in the same league as Auckland.

To which the Secretary’s response was

In response, the Government’s Housing Infrastructure Fund is contributing $76 million in 10-year interest-free loans to support an increase in Queenstown’s housing supply.

So the Secretary to the Treasury now thinks interest-free loans by the government are sensible economic policy?    This isn’t supposed to be some local MP’s party-political broadcast, but the Secretary to the Treasury, guardian of the public purse.

The Secretary then touches on the failure that is New Zealand productivity growth, recognising that we’ve done poorly (while taking no responsibility as head of the leading economic advice agency).  But there is nothing new, and litttle specific.

There are various unsupported assertions  (emphasis added)

We know that our productivity levels stem from a number of factors including weak international connections, the small size of domestic markets, low investment in knowledge-based capital and weaknesses in the allocation of labour.

as if symptoms (in some cases arguable ones) are causes, and then a string of platitudes

It remains a fundamental truth that successful economies need, among other things, a stable and sustainable macroeconomic framework, sound monetary policy and a prudent fiscal policy. It remains true that a well-regulated financial system matters, that properly functioning markets matter, that price signals matter and that incentives matter. And, perhaps most important of all, it remains true that productivity matters.

No doubt largely true (I’d quibble about the “well-regulated” financial system, substituting “sound and stable) but New Zealand has had these features for decades, and we are just slowly drifting further behind.

The second half of the speech builds off this paragraph

The Treasury believes there are a number of factors that always matter for productivity: our human capital, the management of our resources, our international connections, the dynamism of our markets and the effectiveness of our rule-making. I want to say a few words about each of these. To improve our productivity we will have to be more effective in their utilisation and the interactions between them.

First, skills matter.  As if we didn’t know.

There seemed to be two areas of focus

In the Treasury’s view, to help achieve this there should be an emphasis on attainment of cognitive and non-cognitive foundational skills and social skills that are transferable and support life-long learning, as well as greater rates of progression to higher tertiary qualifications.

But I’m not sure what the first half of the sentence really means (Great Books programmes for all, to teach people to think and write?) and the second half looks like a bid for even more tertiary education, when there is little sign that the massive public and private spend on tertiary education in recent decades has been reflected in commensurate increases in productivity or earnings.  And none of this seems embedded in some comparative analysis about whether, and to what extent, New Zealand is doing worse than other advanced countries.

The other specific was slightly surprising

I should also add that we will need to look carefully at whether our social welfare system – which was initially set up to help people make transitions from one job to another in what was expected to be a similar trade – is optimal for the changing world ahead of us.

I presume he means the bits of the system around the unemployment benefit (or whatever it is now called) since most of the social welfare system wasn’t set up to support employment transitions at all (age pensions, widows’ pensions, DPB, sickness and invalid pensions etc), but as his current political masters have, as a matter of policy, been weakening the sanctions in the welfare system that were, supposedly, designed to assist such transitions, I’m left a bit puzzled as to what the Secretary means by this cryptic observation.  Perhaps he is toying with notions of a Universal Basic Income (but, charitably, I’ll assume not)?

Then there is a section on resources.  Some of it seems sensible enough, including around water use rights.  I’m right with him when he favours congestion charging.  But I’m left wondering whether he or The Treasury really believes that either is a significant part of the story explaining our severe relative underperformance.  I don’t.

And lets just say that I rather doubt the robustness of The Treasury’s analytical framework when the Secretary includes these sentences.

The Emissions Trading Scheme is a good example of a tool that can promote the more productive use of resources. Including agriculture within its scope would provide incentives for investment in R&D or innovation in on-farm practices and improve productivity.

An ETS can, no doubt, be a good mechanism for constraining emissions, and even for doing so in a way which might be economically efficient.  But it simply isn’t a way to improve New Zealand’s economywide relative productivity and/or incomes.  Impose an impost (perhaps quite justifiably) on firms in a particular industry, and those who survive will have to adapt their production techniques, perhaps even lifting their own firm productivity.  But it will also considerably shrink the industry in question, when it is an internationally tradable industry, when efficient alternative technologies don’t yet exist, and when other countries aren’t adopting the intervention The Treasury proposes.  All else equal, New Zealanders would be poorer rather than richer if this bit of the Secretary’s prescription was adopted –  the government’s own commissioned economic modelling, by NZIER says as much.

Then Makhlouf moves on to “international connections”, one of the ill-defined buzzwords in this debate.

Mostly it is just empty conventional slogans

Improving the flow of people, capital, trade and ideas will help improve productivity. Strong people-to-people relationships build confidence and understanding and promote learning. They help our businesses to identify capabilities that will help them improve their productivity and ultimately compete and succeed in both domestic and global markets.

All of which would have sounded good in 1984, and yet we greatly liberalised immigration, got rid of most tariff barriers, signed up to all manner of trade agreements, and……the productivity gaps are larger than they were, and actual trade (exports and imports as a share of GDP) is smaller than it was.  The Secretary is either unaware of these basic facts, or simply chooses to ignore them.

I’m closer to the Secrerary’s position when it comes to foreign investment –  where he has to step delicately around the recent legislative choices of his masters –  but there is no sign that he has thought hard about why foreign investment here isn’t more attractive or, indeed, why not many New Zealand based firms do much foreign investment themselves.

There is a section on “markets” that I’m going to skip over.  I don’t particularly disagree with much in it, but there also isn’t much specific there, and nothing to suggest The Treasury has thought seriously about the connection to sustained New Zealand relative productivity underperformance.  Much the same goes for the section on Rules.  I’m all in favour of robust policy evaluation –  it is a shame it hasn’t been applied to Treasury advice on productivity –  and I’m sure there are real opportunities there, but again is there any evidence that things on that score are worse here than in other countries?  Perhaps, but if so he doesn’t mention it.

(The dig at the massive taxpayer subsidy to the cattle industry was interesting, and welcome

Speaking of incentives, I find the situation around the eradication of mycoplasma bovis an interesting one. Responsibility for the genesis and subsequent spread of the mycoplasma bovis outbreak sits with the cattle industry. The question is, should the taxpayer compensate those affected, or should the industry pay for the consequences of the industry’s making? We might also ask what incentives are signalled to the industry by these different options.

And yet, how different is it anywhere else? )

There was an odd section on co-operatives, as if it was a matter for governments to decide on the appropriate sort of vehicles through which business activity is undertaken, and one on public sector productivity, which was really no more than a footnote.

And then there was tax reform.  Mostly, it was in praise of the New Zealand tax system, including the –  highly questionable –  claim, that

the New Zealand tax system is much less distortionary than the tax systems of other OECD countries

That might be true, more or less, if we look only across activities in the same time period, but is demonstrably not true once we take account of intertemporal dimensions.  Not consuming your income now and delaying until later (ie saving –  particularly retirement savings) is much more heavily penalised by the tax system here than in almost any other advanced economy.  That is a distortion The Treasury has been consistently reluctant to address or (it seems) even acknowledge.

There is also no recognition of the possible connections between low rates of foreign investment, and low rates of business investment (symptoms he touches on elsewhere) and business tax regime, where (for example) our company tax rate –  a key consideration for foreign investors –  is now towards the upper end of the OECD range.

And then it was interesting to see that in a speech on productivity, the specific policy proposal that the Secretary devotes most space to (in the entire speech, not just this section) was the call for a capital gains tax.

But there is one area where we stand out as an outlier and which I think needs further attention. The current approach to the treatment of capital income – in particular, capital gains – is highly inconsistent. Some gains are already taxed but others are not. The result is therefore something of a patchwork, the results of which can be unfair, regressive and distortionary. A more consistent approach to the taxation of capital gains would increase the fairness of the tax system, and reduce distortions by levelling the playing field between different types of investments.

For these reasons, the Treasury has long believed there is a real case to extend the taxation of capital income. I recognise that this would come with its own risks, and give rise to higher compliance and administration costs. But there are interventions available to address these risks. The extent to which the impacts are realised – whether positive or negative – will depend significantly on the design of policy.

Some readers will support a capital gains tax.  I don’t particularly, partly because a real-world one (ie the sort many other countries actually have) just introduces a whole new set of distortions, but does anyone seriously believe that a capital gains tax –  whatever the case on “fairness” grounds –  is going to make any material difference to economywide productivity?  And if there is such a case, not even the Secretary to the Treasury advances it.

The Secretary, of course, has to keep on side with his masters, so we read this

I should also add that there are many things being done to address points I’ve just raised. The government has been working on education and training, welfare reform, tax reform and trade relations, to name just a few of the actions happening.

If the Secretary to the Treasury really believes that the goverment’s policy agenda –  at least as revealed to the public –  is going to make a helpful difference in reversing the decades of relative productivity decline, he must surely be the only such person.    But I guess that if he is going to speak in public, he has to say such stuff.

In the final paragraph of the speech there is material for both a brickbat and a rare bouquet.

The brickbat?

And the ‘we’ means everyone: businesses, workers and government seizing the opportunities offered by being part of, and closer to, the fastest-growing region in the world.

Which is simply nonsense of course,   New Zealand is incredibly remote from Asia, or from any other major part of the world economy.     We might be a little less far from some of Asia than we are from Europe or much of North America, but we aren’t even a little close to the major bits of Asia, let alone “part of” it (whatever that means).  When the Seceretary was at home in London he was closer to Mumbai or Bangalore or Delhi than he is in Wellington.  He was actually a little closer to Seoul or Shanghai too.

It is a fundamentally unserious “analysis”.

But there is a bouquet.   Early in his speech, the Secretary was rather downplaying the failure of New Zealand policy, and policy advisers, in observing that labour productivity is “now about 20 per cent below the OECD average”  –  an average considerably lowered by the entry to the OECD of a large group of emerging countries (especially in eastern and central Europe), all of whom throughout modern New Zealand history were considerably poorer and less productive than New Zealand.

But the Secretary ends

Recent research indicates that if New Zealand’s productivity caught up with the better-performing countries in the OECD, our incomes would be 50-60% higher.

It doesn’t take much “research” –  a quick download of an OECD table does the job.   Here is an extract of that table I did recently for a paper I’ve been writing on these issues.

GDP per hour worked
USD, constant prices, 2010 PPPs
1970 1990 2017
New Zealand 21.4 28.6 37.2
Netherlands 27.4 47.5 62.3
Belgium 25.0 46.7 64.6
France 21.7 43.3 59.5
Denmark 25.1 44.8 64.1
Germany 22.3 40.7 60.4
United States 31.1 42.1 63.3
Median of six 25.1 44.1 62.8
NZ as per cent of median 85.4 64.9 59.2
Source: OECD

If anything, a 50-60 per cent lift is an understatement: it would take a two-thirds lift in New Zealand productivity to match the average of this group of high-productivity countries.   And such a lift could be expected to be mirrored in commensurately higher living standards,

But it is great to see the stark magnitude of our failure –  and “failure” is the only honest word for it – as the note the Secretary ends on, even if there isn’t much sign the institution he leads has any serious answers.

And, to be entirely fair, the Governor of the Reserve Bank’s own speech last week makes the Secretary’s effort look like a fine piece of public sector analysis and communications by comparison.  I will write about the Governor’s extraordinary speech tomorrow.

 

Stakeholders, The Treasury, and economic failure

The Treasury runs a survey of external stakeholders every couple of years, and usually publishes the results on their website quite quickly.  Last year, the results weren’t very good, so they delayed publishing them.  In fact, it was only a few days ago, in response to an OIA request from Eric Crampton at the New Zealand Initiative, that they finally released them.

As Eric notes the results aren’t all bad, but

Among those people interacting with Treasury about its core business of economics, macroeconomics, and fiscal projection, satisfaction dropped from 70% in 2015 to 47% in 2017. The proportion of stakeholders viewing Treasury staff as well-informed dropped significantly, as did overall confidence that staff do a good job, that Treasury challenges thinking on critical issues, and that Treasury can offer insights.

Eric has been concerned for some time about The Treasury’s de-emphasis on core economics and finance skills in Treasury’s recruitment.  For example, apparently

Only four of fifteen hired by Treasury in the 2019 graduate recruitment round had at least Honours-level training in economics and finance.

And then there are specific survey results like this (the blue bits are those respondents who think Treasury is improving)

Tsy stakeholder 1

and in the same vein

tsy stakeholder 2

Not exactly positive results for an agency whose website blares at people that

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

In some ways, I’m not sure what to make of the survey results.  After all, if one goes to the demographics at the back of the survey document, in the latest survey an even larger proportion than usual of the respondents are from elsewhere in the public sector itself (the blue bars are the latest survey).

tsy stakeholder 3

Consistent with that, an even larger proportion than usual of respondents live in Wellington (58 per cent, up from 50 per cent in the previous survey).

There are, I’m sure, still plenty of individual good people in the public sector (including in The Treasury), but if in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, what happens when the entire kingdom is blind.  The public sector more generally is greatly diminished in its policy capabilities –  the sorts of concern Victoria University’s Simon Chapple raised last week – and it isn’t clear to me why, for example, one would trust the Ministry for the Environment (of flakey analysis of plastic bags and emissions) or the Productivity Commission (this week’s Green Party cheerleading) to recognise a good, or bad, Treasury when they saw one.   Either that, or The Treasury is now so poorly performing that even the rest of the public sector recognises it –  and this survey was taken last year, before the “wellbeing Budget” silliness, championed by Treasury, got underway.

Much as I lament the reduction in the extent to which Treasury is hiring people with strong economics and finance skills, I think that is a symptom rather than the cause of the problem.  In fact, at the upper levels of the organisation there is less of a vacuum of economics skills now than there was a few years back.  At one stage, I could spot only one person with a solid economics record in their senior management group, but now there are at least three, all of whom I’ve worked with previously.

But there is still little useful analysis or advice on turning around decades of economic underperformance.  Instead, what economics skills are being deployed seem to be being used on exercises in distractions –  focusing on all manner of aspects of “wellbeing” (recent papers on Asian and Pacific New Zealander dimensions of “wellbeing” –  are we soon going to see ones on European New Zealanders’ wellbeing, or middle-aged people’s wellbeing? ), while avoiding the elephant in the room, decades of economic failure, for which The Treasury seems to have given up thinking hard about serious answers.

In putting this post together, I noticed that the Secretary to the Treasury had actually given a speech this week about productivity.  Glancing through it – I may come back to it in detail next week – it seems about as devoid of serious analysis and answers as most of the rest of Treasury’s work during the term of Makhlouf’s stewardship.   He notes that productivity matters  –  but blind Freddy knows that –  and there are lots of conventional rhetorical tropes, but he appears to have nothing to offer the government or citizens on what might make a real and sustained difference to New Zealand’s fortunes.  He can employ all the economists graduating from our universities and it won’t much any difference unless the Secretary –  or his replacement next year –  and his senior management are really interested in digging a lot deeper, and asking uncomfortable questions about why economic policy, with the best of intentions, has done so poorly for such a long time.  He is now, perhaps, somewhat constrained by the government’s commitment to the feel-good “wellbeing Budget”, but that is no excuse –  they were led down that track by a Treasury not doing its core job well, and with nothing substantive on offer for a new government had it been interested in seriously addressing the productivity growth failure.

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

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

Political ructions and a better economic performance

Years ago we in New Zealand sometimes had the gruesome spectacle of governing party coups (and the like).  There was the failed (“Colonels’ coup”) attempt to oust Muldoon in 1980, the ructions that led to Lange’s departure in 1988 and then (unelected) Palmer’s a year later, and the ousting of Jim Bolger in late 1997, and then the break-up of the governing coalition a year later.  But you have to be a certain age to remember any, let alone all, of those.

In Australia, by contrast they’ve been two a penny in the last decade.   It isn’t exactly the rate at which Italian governments used to turn over until relatively recently, or French governments in the ill-fated Fourth Republic (22 prime ministerships in 12 years) but it is quite extraordinary by Anglo country standards.  Has there ever been a time previously –  in New Zealand, the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia – when four people in a row who successfully led their party to an election victory –  limping home in Turnbull’s and Gillard’s cases –  didn’t complete the subsequent (three years) term?  Perhaps Turnbull will, in fact, limp on, but even if he does it is hard to see to what end.

A mere three years ago, when Turnbull ousted Abbott I wrote a post about the strange phenomenon then gripping the Australian centre-right: New Zealand envy.  Here was Turnbull speaking just after his coup.

“John Key has been able to achieve very significant economic reforms in New Zealand by doing just that, by taking on and explaining complex issues and then making the case for them. And I, that is certainly something that I believe we should do and Julie and I are very keen to do that again.”

As I noted, it was very hard to think of such “very significant economic reforms”.  Moreover, as I illustrated in that post, New Zealand seemed to have drifted a bit further behind Australia economically over the previous few years.

I noticed Julia Gillard yesterday engaging in a bit of New Zealand envy, suggesting (probably tongue in cheek) that Australians might well consider moving to New Zealand.  Only, surely, if they wanted to be colder as well as poorer.  Recall that Australian incomes are far higher than those in New Zealand, the main reason why for the last 40 years so many New Zealanders (net) have gone to Australia, and so few Australians have come to New Zealand.   Even just since 1991, a net 470.000 New Zealanders have gone to Australia, and only 49000 (net) other passport holders have come to New Zealand from Australia.

And, like it or not, political instability (including ructions in successive ruling parties) doesn’t seem to have been a material factor impairing economic performance.  That was so for France and Italy after the war, and if –  as I illustrated last week –  if Australia’s economic performance hasn’t been great, given its resource bounty, it has still been better than New Zealand’s.

Here I’m going to focus on the period since the end of 2007, for two reasons.  First, it was about the time the Rudd government took office which –  although it wasn’t apparent at the time –  was the beginning of the era of Australian political instability.  And, second, because it is just prior to the recession of 2008/09.  In New Zealand, Labour was still in office for most of 2008, but comparisons from troughs of recessions are rarely very meaningful (and if Australia didn’t have a recession in the sense of a couple of negative quarters of GDP, it still had a big fall in income measures –  as commodity prices fell –  and a material rise in the unemployment rate).

First, there is an important background feature that governments don’t have any material influence over; the terms of trade.

aus nz tot

Australia’s terms of trade have been much more volatile than those of New Zealand over the last decade or so, but taken over the whole period there hasn’t been that much difference.  Both countries have benefited from the movement in world prices to about the same extent (Australia had also had a substantial lift from about 2002, not mirrored in the New Zealand numbers).

Then there are the headline national accounts comparisons: real GDP per capita.

real gdp pc aus nz

On that measure, at the end of the period there has been no change in the relative position of the two economies  (although the gap between the two lines for much of the period is lost output that is never likely to be got back).  No sign of any catch-up, although also no falling further behind either.

The terms of trade can make a material difference to economic wellbeing, and terms of trade gains are not directly reflected in the real GDP numbers (although the indirect effects – any increases in consumption or investment etc in response –  are there).   But on this occasion we don’t need to worry too much about that point because, as the first chart illustrates, over the full period both countries’ terms of trade have risen by about the same amount.

But if real GDP per capita in the two countries has grown by about the same percentage in each country over the last decade, there has been a really big difference in the composition of that growth, and not one that is positive for New Zealand in the longer term.   I have shown the labour productivity chart previously, but here it is again anyway.

aus nz rgdp phw

Some years we match Australian productivity growth, and occasionally even exceed it, but over the period since the end of 2007, labour productivity growth in Australia has exceeded that in New Zealand by about 8 percentage points.  That is a lot, especially when New Zealand was starting from so far behind.

And here is a large component of the difference.  I’ve set hours worked per head of population equal to 100 in both countries in 2007q4, and shown how that measure has changed in each country since then.

hours worked per head

It looks a lot like that old story: New Zealand (in orange) more or less manages to “keep up” (not see real GDP per capita drop further behind) simply by working more hours.  That is no sustainable route to greater national prosperity, especially when hours worked per capita are already quite high by advanced country standards.

Of course, some will probably want to claim this as some sort of New Zealand success story –  “look at all those people we have in work etc etc”.   But working more hours isn’t some “good thing” for its own sake, and the unemployment rate is the best summary measure of whether there is slack in the labour market.   If Australia’s unemployment rate had increased materially more than New Zealand’s then one probably could tell a (cyclical) New Zealand success story.  But here are the two unemployment rates.

nz aus U rates

Most people reckon Australia’s NAIRU is higher than New Zealand’s (and that is a long-term negative for Australia, and the wellbeing of Australians), but that was so before the crisis too. In fact, the gap between New Zealand and Australian unemployment rates now (around 1 per cent) is exactly the same as the gap at the end of 2007.   Just as is the case in New Zealand, most Australian residents who actually want jobs have them.  So I don’t count the increase in hours worked here as any sort of mark of success.

None of this –  higher productivity growth in Australia in particular –  should be any great surprise.  If one looks across the OECD’s Going for Growth structural indicators (for example) the two countries score about as well, or poorly (on some indicators), as each other.  But Australia has seen come on stream huge new mineral production –  a new endowment they could tap –  and we’ve had nothing comparable (to what extent that is because similar resources aren’t there, or because policy choices prevent them being utilised is a topic for another day).  But with no other new opportunities apparent to match the new minerals –  and see the shrinkage in our foreign trade shares – our structural position relative to Australia has weakened further.

I’m not going to illustrate housing markets –  in any case mostly a state matter in Australia as I understand it –  but in both countries the best that can be said is that the outcomes, for ordinary people, have been lamentable, and disgraceful.

There is an argument sometimes mounted that the earthquakes were a significant drag that Australia didn’t have to face.  In terms of the existing stock of wealth, there is some truth in that (even recognising that much of the loss was reinsured abroad).  And the rebuild process –  which peaked several years ago now –  did take resources that couldn’t be used for other things.   But (a) on official estimates we had utilised capacity (output gap and unemployment gap) for most of the time, and (b) if there really were abundant international opportunities for firms here, bidding for capital and labour resources, we might have expected to see persistent upward pressure on our interest rates relative to those in the rest of the world, and associated inflation pressures.  We’ve not seen the inflation pressures at all (any more than in Australia) and the upward pressure on our interest rates relative to the rest of world occurred only while our Reserve Bank was messing up –  driving up the OCR before having to about-face and more than fully reverse themselves.

There isn’t a choice between chronic political infighting (of the Australian sort) and improved prosperity, but if there were I reckon I’d take the prosperity.  As it is, at least relative to New Zealand, Australia looks to have had both.  If there is an understandable tendency to rather look down on the political machinations, we should at least pause to ponder (again) our own long – and continuing – relative economic decline.

And now back to watching the gruesome spectacle across the Tasman.

 

The Minister of Finance champions an economic strategy

Longstanding readers will know that I was pretty critical of the previous government for the utter absence of any sign of a set of economic policies that might have begun to reverse the decades of relative economic decline.  Worse, they and their acolytes too often seemed to make up stories about how well things were going when the data pretty clearly pointed in the opposite direction.   I’m not sure I’d be quite as harsh as Kerry McDonald and Don Brash, who recently gave the Key-English government an overall score of 0/10, but I’d be close, especially around productivity (and also around housing).

What has become increasingly disconcerting is that the new government –  now almost a third of the way through its term –  also has no credible ideas about reversing the decline and little interest either.  They seem increasingly reduced to making stuff up as well, and trotting out the same lines again and again without any sign of a really understanding the challenge, without any sign of a compelling analytical framework, and without any reason to think that the policies they talk of will make any material (helpful) difference.

I woke this morning to the news that the Minister of Finance had an op-ed in the Herald explaining how the government was going to restore our economic fortunes.   With suitably low expectations, I tracked it down.   Even with low expectations, I was struck by how weak it was, and left wondering why the Minister and his PR team thought the article was a good idea.

The Minister begins thus

The coalition Government is helping business modernise our economy to be fit for purpose for the 21st century.

Presumably he is aware that one sixth of the 21st century has already gone?  And that his party was in government for half that time?  But let that pass: as rhetoric it might be empty, but it is probably harmless.

This means being smarter in how we work, lifting the value of what we produce and export, supporting the environment, planning for future generations and giving everyone a fair shot at success. It means making sure that all hard-working Kiwis share in the rewards of economic growth.

All of which is hard to argue with, but isn’t exactly a) specific, or (b) new.  I keep a copy of National’s 1975 election manifesto by my desk, and flicking through it –  43 years on now – I think I spotted all those points (actually, in light of Eugenie Sage’s announcement on Sunday, I also found a pledge to “discourage all forms of environmental pollution and encourage the recycling of materials.  We will place a levy on difficult-to-dispose-of products’).   Labour’s 1972 manifesto, or its 1984 one, or its 1999 one probably had them all too.

Most New Zealanders know we cannot go on relying on a volatile mix of population growth, an overheated housing market buoyed by speculation, and exporting raw commodities as our growth drivers.

Quite a bit of that was in the 1975 manifesto too.    They are old lines, each trotted out by politicians of either main party for decades as the symptoms presented.     Not always even very accurately – does anyone actually think an “overheated housing market buoyed by speculation” added to national prosperity?   And not with much sense that the speaker had any sort of robust model of the New Zealand economy.  Let alone serious policies in response: for example, if this paragraph is to be believed, the current government is apparently uneasy about rapid population growth, but continues to run the same immigration policy as both its predecessor governments for the last 20 years.

And despite all this, a few sentences later the Minister of Finance tries to assert that

the fundamentals fuelling the economy are strong

Quite which “fundamentals” he has in mind – presumably not those in the previous quote (above) –  isn’t clear.  In fact, all he offers in support of his view is

Last week, the Reserve Bank said growth will still average 3 per cent over the next three years. And Mainfreight managing director Don Braid said recently: “I think the business environment is good right now.”

A government agency whose forecasts seem to command increasing scepticism among other forecasters, and one prominent business person.  Perhaps you are persuaded.  I’m not.

But finally we get to some of the things the government is promising.  First, what the Minister presents as a key component

Our plan to become more productive is built on getting our infrastructure sorted. This year, and for the next 10 years, we will invest more than $4 billion getting roads, rail and coastal shipping humming. We are sorting out Auckland’s congestion to save the $1b loss in productivity it causes each year.

Haven’t we heard these infrastructure stories (“we are taking steps to clear the backlog”) for 15 years now?  But even if they are doing everything well in this area, look at the number in the final sentence.   $1 billion –  assuming the estimate is robust –  is a great deal of money to you and me individually, but this is an economy with an annual GDP of $280 billion.  On the Minister’s own numbers, fixing congestion would lift GDP by about 0.36 per cent.  It would be very welcome, but it is tiny relative to the scale of the economic underperformance: with no productivity growth at all for the last three years, it might take 10 similar initiatives to just reverse the further slippage (relative to other countries) in the last few years.  But this was the only hard number in the entire article.

So what else does the Minister have to offer in his economic strategy?

We are investing to improve the skills of our workforce so that workers can adapt to changing workplaces. New programmes like our Mana in Mahi/Strength in Work apprenticeship scheme will get young people off the dole and support employers with the costs of giving them an apprenticeship to help them grow their business.

As I’ve noted numerous times previously, on OECD data New Zealand workers are among the most highly-skilled in the OECD.   And where the government is spending most heavily in the broad area of skills, it seems to be in providing fee-free tertiary education –  a policy that will (a) mostly redistribute money to people (and their families) who would already undertake tertiary education, and (b) to the limited extent it encourages further participation, presumably do so mostly among those for whom tertiary education offers lower expected returns.  It doesn’t have the feel of a productivity-enhancing policy, and the government has not (that I’ve seen) offered any numbers to the contrary.   As for getting “young people off the dole”, it is (of course) a worthy objective but haven’t we seen many such initiatives in the last 50 years?

Other policies supporting small and medium enterprises to manage costs include greater access to training programmes, e-invoicing and cutting compliance costs.

There may well be some useful stuff in that list.  But surely every government in modern times has talked of cutting compliance costs?  And, in practice, haven’t most ended up increasing them overall?  The previous government liked to boast of the 500 (?) items that comprised its Business Growth Agenda, but none of it (not even all of it) began to reverse decades of underperformance.  It was symptom of the drive for action without analysis.

New Zealand was built on innovation. The best path for us to get richer as a country is to invest in new opportunities and find better ways of doing things. The coalition Government is supporting business to lift research and development investment, with $1b set aside in the Budget for R&D tax incentives.

Hard to disagree with the second sentence, but without some compelling analysis suggesting that the government and its advisers understand why firms haven’t regarded it as worth their while to spend more heavily on R&D, it is difficult to be optimistic that more subsidies are the answer.   As I noted in an earlier post on the government’s proposals in this area

R&D tax credits aren’t the only form of government spending to subsidise business R&D – in fact, the government’s new scheme involves doing away with the current grants. And as it happens, OECD numbers suggests we already spend more (per cent of GDP) on such subsidies than Germany (DEU), and quite a lot more than Switzerland (CHE). [both of which have far far higher levels of actual business R&D]

All of which might suggest taking a few steps back and thinking harder about why firms themselves don’t see it as worth undertaking very much R&D spending here. But given a choice between hard-headed sceptical analysis and being seen to “do something”, all too often it is the latter that seems to win out.

But we are only stepping up to the big stuff

Our bold goal for New Zealand to have a net zero emissions economy by 2050 is essential as we face up to climate change. This goal creates economic opportunities. The business community is alongside us, with 60 of our biggest firms forming the Climate Leaders Coalition. The $100 million Green Investment Fund and the One Billion Trees initiative are key parts of this work.

Perhaps it is “essential”.   Perhaps it even creates “economic opportunities” –  big changes in regulation and relative prices always do, for some people.   But the government’s own consultative document, and modelling commissioned for them from NZIER, suggests that once one looks at the entire economy, a serious net-zero emissions target by 2050 will result in losses of real GDP per capita of 10 to 22 per cent (relative to the baseline in which no such target is adopted by New Zealand).   No democratic government is history has ever consulted on proposals that would lead to such a dramatic fall in expected future living standards and productivity.  And, as a reminder, on the government’s own numbers, the costs would fall wildly disproportionately on the poorest New Zealanders.   And, yes, there probably will be a lot more trees planted –  many of them probably on good, easy to access and harvest, land –  but just last week the government had to announce large subsidies to get even that programme underway.  Subsidies have never been the path to improved economywide economic prosperity.  Of course, few suppose the government proposes adopting a net-zero target for economic purposes, but they should at least stop misrepresenting the analysis on the economic effects from their own consultants.

We are also committed to ensuring no one is left behind in our economy. That’s why we have put in place the Families Package and lifted the minimum wage. It is why we have a $1b annual fund for regional infrastructure and economic development opportunities.

So the regions are so “stuffed” that only an annual subsidy scheme is going to help ensure they aren’t “left behind”?    That seems to be the implication of what the Minister of Finance is saying there.   And perhaps the Minister skipped over the likely tension between the laudable desire (see above) to get young people off the dole, and the really substantial increase in the minimum wage his government is putting in place (at a time when there is little or no economywide productivity growth)?

There are challenges in the world that are outside of New Zealand’s control. That is why we are running a surplus and being prudent with our debt levels. We are also diversifying our export markets to create new opportunities for our exporters.

There is no hint of what, specifically, the Minister has in mind with his final sentence.  But there is a certain sameness to it, going back decades and decades (nice quotes –  including about the potential role of forestry –  in that 1975 manifesto I mentioned earlier).  And, actually, taken over the decades there has been a huge amount of diversification of export markets –  no single country takes more than a quarter of New Zealand firms’ exports – but it hasn’t enabled New Zealand to lift the foreign trade share of its GDP much.  In fact, over the last 35 years that share has shrunk.

As Don Brash noted in his article the other day, the previous government had fine words too

Key spoke about the need to increase the export orientation of the economy, and set a target for exports of goods and services of 40 per cent of GDP, up from 30 per cent when he came to office. Today, exports are just 27 per cent of GDP

Just no policies to make a difference.

The Minister of Finance attempts to end his article on an upbeat note

We are committed to working with business, workers and communities to build a stronger, more productive economy that delivers the quality of life that all New Zealanders deserve.

A worthy objective indeed, but there is nothing in what he told his readers that is likely to address –  and begin to reverse –  the decades and decades of underperformance.  If we take seriously the government’s own numbers around the proposed emissions goal, the relative underperformance could be even worse under this government (were it to win nine years in office) than under its two predecessors.

I presume (hope) the Minister believes what he says, but until he starts to confront the implications of charts like this he is unlikely to make any progress (except perhaps by chance)

With a real exchange rate now averaging 25 per cent higher than in the previous 15 years, in a country where productivity has dropped further behind, it shouldn’t be any surprise at all that foreign trade shares are falling, that the economy is increasingly skewed towards the non-tradables sector (where competition is often, and often of necessity) quite limited, or that firms don’t see the likely payoff to investing heavily in R&D.   These are classic symptoms of a severely unbalanced economy.  Most often they arise from misguided government choices.  In our case, the biggest single misguided choice is the grim determination –  or perhaps enthusiastic dream – to keep on rapidly driving up our population in such an isolated location where the opportunities to take on the world from here seem few –  and all the fewer with such a severely out-of-line real exchange rate.

Really successful economies  –  ones with materially stronger productivity growth than their peers –  tend to have strong, and rising, real exchange rates.  But that strength is a consequence of success, an outcome of success, a way of spreading the gains.  Driving up the real exchange rate has never been a part of successful strategy to lift the relative productivity performance of the economy.  The reformers here in the 1980s recognised the importance of a sustained lower real exchange rate as part of a successful economic transition.  It is tragic that today’s political and economic leaders seem to have almost completely lost sight of that.

We have –  and will have –  a 21st century economy.  But the question is whether it will be a struggling upper middle economy, with hazy memories of glory days long gone, or one that once again matches many of the richer countries in the advanced world, something I’m pretty sure we could do, but for a small number of people.  If the government really believes they have the answer for how they can do it with a population that they  actively drive further up every year, they surely owe it to us to lay out their reasoning, their analysis, with much more specificity than the Minister of Finance has yet done.  That might include explaining why their clever wheezes and proposed reforms will make the difference their predecessors also claim to have aspired to for decades now.

Then again, perhaps tangible achievement no longer matters.  Under the government’s wellbeing approach perhaps warm feelings will substitute for world-leading incomes?