Productivity growth: failures and successes

As a parent I find it particularly disheartening to observe the near-complete indifference of governments and major political parties that might hope to form governments to the atrocious productivity performance of the New Zealand economy. If the last National government was bad, the Labour or Labour-led governments since 2017 have been worse. It is hard to think of a single thing they’ve done to improve the climate for market-driven business investment and productivity growth, and easy to identify a growing list of things that worsen the outlook – most individually probably quite small effects, but the cumulative direction is pretty clear. Before I had kids I used to idly talk about not encouraging any I had to stay in New Zealand, so relatively poor were the prospects becoming. It is harder to take that stance when it is real young people one enjoys being around, but…..at least from an economic perspective New Zealand looks like an ever-worse option, increasingly an inward-looking backwater.

One of the ways of seeing the utter failure – the indifference, the betrayal of New Zealanders – is to look at the growing list of countries that are either moving past us, or fast approaching us. Recall that for 50 years or more New Zealand was among the handful of very highest income countries on earth.

For doing those comparisons I prefer to focus on measures of real GDP per hour worked, compared using purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates. It is, broadly speaking, a measure of how much value is being added by firms – mostly in the private sector – for each unit of labour those firms are deploying. Real GDP per capita can be useful for some purposes – actual material living standards comparisons – but can be greatly, directly, affected, by demographics, in ways that don’t reveal much about the performance of the economy and the environment for business investment.

When I run charts here about productivity comparisons across countries I mostly use OECD data. Most – but not quite all – of what we think of as advanced economies are in the OECD (as well as a few new entrants that aren’t very advanced at all, and seem like “diversity hires”, incidentally making New Zealand look a bit less bad in “whole of OECD” comparisons). But once in a while I check out the Conference Board’s Total Economy Database, which has a smaller range of series for a rather wider range of countries, advanced and emerging. The latest update was out a few weeks ago.

As regular readers know I have highlighted from time to time the eastern and central European OECD countries – all Communist-run until about 1989 – that were catching or moving past us. I first noticed this when I helped write the 2025 Taskforce’s report – remember, the idea that we might close the gaps to Australia by 2025, when in fact policy indifference has meant they’ve kept widening – in 2009, so that must have been data for 2007 or 2008. Back then only Slovenia had matched us, and they were (a) small and (b) just over the border from Italy and Austria. The OECD and Conference Board numbers are slightly different, but by now probably four of the eight have matched or exceeded us (and all eight managed faster productivity growth than us over the last cycle). Turkey – also in the OECD – has also now passed us.

But what about the central and eastern European countries that aren’t in the OECD? As I glanced down the tables I remembered a post I’d written four years ago about Romania and comparisons with New Zealand’s economic performance. Romania had been achieving quite strong productivity growth prompting me to note

….one of the once-richest countries of the world is on course for having Romania, almost a byword in instability, repression etc for so many decades, catch us up.  It would take a while if current trends continue.  But not that long. Simply extrapolating the relative performance of just the last decade (and they had a very nasty recession in 2008/09 during that time) about another 20 years.

So how have things been going?

romania 21

Even if we focus just on the last hard pre-Covid estimate (for 2019) they were up to about 84 per cent of average New Zealand labour productivity. If these trends continue, they’d catch us by about the end of the decade.

To be clear, it is generally a good thing when other countries succeed. It is great that these central and eastern European countries moved out from the shadow of the USSR and non-market economies and are now achieving substantial lifts in living standards. The point of the comparisons is not to begrudge their successes – which have a long way still to run to match most of western Europe – but to highlight the failure New Zealand governments have presided over. We were richer than all these countries for almost all of modern New Zealand history, and soon our economy will be less productive than all or most of them. We were also richer and better off than most or all of today’s most productive advanced economies, and now we just trail in the their wake. Even as the most productive advanced economies have experienced a marked slowing in their productivity growth in the last 15 years or so

prod growth advanced

we’ve really only managed little more than to track their slowdown – and recall that the median of these countries has average labour productivity two-thirds higher than New Zealand’s so – as in the central and eastern European countries – there were big gaps that might have been closed somewhat. Most of those countries did so, but not New Zealand.

To revert to Romania for a moment, it is not as if it is without its challenges. It ranks about 55th on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index, and has been slipping down that ranking (although still doing very well on a couple of components). Corruption seems to be a major problem. The neighbours aren’t the best either – including Ukraine and Moldova. Reading the latest IMF report (pre-Covid) there were signs of some looming macro imbalances but the latest IMF forecasts suggests a pretty optimistic outlook still, including investment as a share of GDP climbing back to about 25 per cent of GDP. Perhaps something is going to derail that productivity convergence (with New Zealand) story but it isn’t there in the forecasts at present. And if corruption has to be a drag of some sort (but how large can that effect be?) government spending and revenue are both smaller as a share of GDP than in New Zealand.

In GDP per capita terms the picture (Romania vs New Zealand) is not quite as grim. That mostly reflects differences in hours worked

Romania hrs

Some of that is demographics, some not. Either way, hours worked are an input – a cost – not (mostly) a good thing in their own right. New Zealand struggles to maintain upper middle income living standards for the population as a whole by working a lot more hours (per capita) than many other advanced countries.

And then of course there is the difference that must be quite uncomfortable for the political and bureaucratic champions of “big New Zealand” – those politicians (both sides) just champing at the bit to get our population growing rapidly again.

romania popn

Romania is a pretty big country. When this chart started it had almost six times our population. 25 years on Romania’s population is a bit under four times ours. I mentioned earlier the investment share of GDP: Romania’s is averaging a little higher than ours, even with these massive population growth (shrinkage) differences, so just imagine how much more of those investment resources are going to deepen capital per worker (even public infrastructure per citizen). (For those interested the total fertility rates of the two countries are now very similar: the differences in trend population growth are largely down to immigration/emigration.)

Now, of course, I haven’t mentioned being in the EU or being located not too far from many of the most productive economies on earth (although Bucharest to Zurich isn’t much less than the distance Wellington to Sydney). Those are advantages. Of course they are. But then why do New Zealand officials and policymakers continue to champion a (now) purely policy-driven “big New Zealand” when (a) almost nothing has gone right for that story in (at least) the last 25 years, and (b) when so much else of policy choices only reduces the likelihood of the future under such a strategy being any better?

Romania really is a success story, and I’d like to understand a bit better why (for example) it has been doing so much better than Bulgaria and Serbia. But it isn’t an isolated success story: in addition to the OECD eastern and central European economies, Croatia isn’t doing too badly either.

But – and taking a much longer span – this chart still surprised me. It draws on different database – the Maddison Project collection of historical real GDP per capita data. Since it is per capita data it includes all those differences in hours worked per capita (data which simply isn’t available for most countries in the distant past). I’ve started in 1875 simply because that is when the Romania data start. I’ve shown only the countries for which there is 1875 data (the last observations are 2016 simply because that is when this particular database stops), with the exception of China and India which I’ve added in for illustrative purposes because there are a couple of estimates for years between 1870 and 1887 which I’ve simply interpolated. The chart shows the ratio of real per capita incomes in 2016 as a ratio of those in 1875.

romania maddison

Best of them all. New Zealand not so much (and yes we were about the top of the class in 1875, but the New Zealand story is submergence not convergence, given how many of these countries are now richer than us).

To be clear, over the last 140+ years New Zealand has been a far better – safer, more prosperous, fairer, more open – country in which to live than Romania. Whether it will still be so for most the next century is increasingly a very open question. Our politicians seem unconcerned, and if any of them have private concerns they do nothing about them – no serious policies in government, so no serious policy reform options in Opposition. Nothing. They seem to just prefer nothing more than the occasional ritual mention.

Still on matters productivity, I finished reading last night an excellent new book on productivity: Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy is a Sign of Success by Dietrich Vollrath, a professor of economics at the University of Houston. It is incredibly clearly written, and is a superb introduction to economic growth and productivity for anyone interested (I”ll be commending it to my son who has just started university economics). I’m not really persuaded by his story about the US, but it is well worth reading if you want to think about these issues as they apply to one of the highest productivity economies on earth. It suffers (as so many US books) do from being exclusively US-focused, even though there is a range of northern European economies with productivity levels very similar to (a bit above, a bit below) those in the US and one might think that their data, their experiences, might be a cross-check on some of his stories. To be clear, his focus is on a frontier economy, not ones – whether New Zealand or the central and east European ones, or even the UK and Australia – which start so far inside the frontier. But it is a very good introduction to how to think about sum of the issues, and a summary of many of the papers that the research-rich US economy generates.

Economic coercion

It is pretty clear that the main (external) reason our two main political parties have been so reluctant to say very much at all critical of the increasing threats posed – to people in China or abroad (not overlooking there the ethnic Chinese New Zealanders) – by the CCP-controlled People’s Republic of China relates to the fear that New Zealand exporting firms might find themselves subjected to the PRC’s attempts at economic coercion. Quite possibly the flow of political party donations might be part of the story. No doubt the anti-Americanism that pervades much of the left in New Zealand (and a detestation of the current Australian government), combined with that weird belief that somehow New Zealand is better than both – perhaps able to be some sort of “honest broker” – plays some part. That self-regarding nonsense of the “independent foreign policy” – as if we didn’t make our own choices (rightly and wrongly) to support the UK in the Chanak crisis, to support sanctions in the 30s at the League of Nations Council, to enter World War Two, to offer support on Suez, to participate in Vietnam, to provide a frigate at the time of the Falklands, to play a part of the first Iraq war, and not to play a part the second – seems to be there, although mostly as cover, an excuse. Perhaps for a few individuals the prospect of lucrative or prestigious post-government roles plays a part, although I doubt that is really a serious driver for many (though those now holding such posts – and wishing to continue doing so – are themselves effectively silenced).

But no one really doubts that the biggest consideration is trade. There was a time when we used to hear, over and over again, the nauseating line that “New Zealand’s foreign policy was trade”, but if that line hasn’t been heard much in recent years, it is the subtext to so much around the PRC. In fact, often not even the subtext: Newshub had a story in the last day or so in which National’s foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee is quoted. The first bit sounded relatively encouraging (for the National Party)

Gerry Brownlee, National’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson, hopes Mahuta shares any information she receives with other parliamentary parties. He’s also pushing for an independent observer to be sent to Xinjiang. 

“I think that should be advanced as soon as possible as this isn’t going to go away until there is greater certainty about it nor can there be a clarity of action until there is a greater certainty about it one way or another,” he told Newshub.

He said if there are atrocities found to be taking place “on the scale we are told about, that might make the genocide test”.

But….

“But you have got to bear in mind that there are hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders at work today largely because of our trade with China. It is not a simple matter, it is not a straightforward matter, it is one the Government should definitely have a position on.”

“Genocide” (or even “just” gross and systematic state sponsored and administered human rights abuses) or trade. Sounds like Mr Brownlee thinks it a tough choice. (And in fairness, if it is particularly crassly expressed, there is no sign his basic view is much different from of his Labour counterparts).

There seem to be twin (related) mythologies at work. The previous National government sometimes liked to run the (deeply fallacious) line that somehow New Zealand firms’ trade with PRC entities had “saved” the New Zealand economy from the ravages of the 2008/09 recession – which allegedly would otherwise have been much worse here otherwise. No evidence was ever advanced for this proposition – that Murray McCully seemed particularly found of – and it seemed to (conveniently) escape notice that New Zealand’s total trade shares (of GDP) were falling not rising over this period, that New Zealand’s productivity performance over this period was woeful, and that it took 10 years for our unemployment rate to get back to pre-recession levels, slower even that the US – the country at the epicentre of the financial crisis that helped precipitate that recession.

And that mythology – less heard these days – is supplemented by a story that – so it is claimed – much of our prosperity (such as it is) rests of trade with the PRC, with the implication (from some) that we should be suitably grateful, or at least simply keep quiet, think kind thoughts privately, and be thankful for small mercies (our prosperity). Again, the argument simply doesn’t stack up. To a very large extent, countries (all of them) make their own prosperity (or lack of it). We weren’t among the very richest countries in the world in the first half of last century because of any other country, but because of some mix of technology, institutions, people, natural resources and so on. We don’t languish well down the per capita income league tables (albeit still a long way ahead of China) because of anyone else’s choices, but mostly because of our own policies. China didn’t make us rich or poor. It made China first (last century) poor, and eventually middle-income.

Now, middle-income only as the PRC may now be, there are a lot of Chinese, so China’s share of total world economic activity and demand is substantial, and likely to be growing for some time. And perhaps there are a few products and a few countries where it might be said that China makes a real and sustained difference to the country concerned: Australia, for example, has 30 per cent of the world’s iron ore reserves (and a larger share of production) and China currently consumes a very large share of world iron ore production. But even if Chinese demand makes a difference to Australian average incomes, Australia was a prosperous first world country before Chinese iron ore demand became so large, and would be still without it. Total gross iron ore exports from Australia are equal to about 5 per cent of Australia’s GDP.

The world price for commodity products is determined by world demand and supply conditions, a point given far too little attention in the timid New Zealand discussion of PRC issues. A severe and sustained recession in China would represent a significant (but cyclical) blow to the world economy, and to New Zealand – and would do so whether or not New Zealand firms traded much directly with PRC counterparts. That is also true – as we saw in 2008/09 – of severe US recessions. That sort of shock – and others like them, at home or abroad – is why we have a floating exchange rate and discretionary monetary and fiscal policy.

What is much less clear is how significant the economywide impact might be of any one country – the PRC – attempting economic coercion on New Zealand. There would clearly be an impact on some individual firms (big and small) but that shouldn’t be a first order consideration for New Zealand governments in setting foreign policy and considering articulating perspectives on human rights abuses.

We can set some issues to one side. Yes, we are small, but that isn’t terribly relevant to anything. Yes, New Zealand firms trade internationally, but contrary to the rhetoric about being a “small highly open economy”, actually the share of our economy accounted for by foreign trade (exports and imports) is (a) much less than one would normally expect for a country our size, and (b) has been shrinking. And, yes the PRC recently moved a bit ahead of Australia as the country where the most two-way trade is done with, but – as people have noted for decades – one notable thing about New Zealand is that our trade isn’t very concentrated with any single other country/region (much less so than is the case for Australia). Total New Zealand exports to China, pre-Covid, were about 5 per cent of GDP. Even the EU apparently now has the PRC as the country with which the most foreign trade is done.

I’ve written on this issue before, and suggested then that the sectors of greatest vulnerability might be export education and tourism. As it happens, Covid has dealt to those particular markets for the time being (as it has for Australia). That isn’t a good thing in and of itself, but it does take those considerations off the table if the government were to think of taking a stronger stance at present. The focus for now is commodity exports (dairy, forestry, meat, crayfish etc).

And here it is helpful to look at the experience of (a) the Australian economy, and (b) Australian firms – keeping the two as distinctly different – in the face of blatant PRC economic coercion over the last year or so. There are some sub-sectors and firms that appear to have had it very tough – watch the ABC documentary screened the other day – and listen to the anguish of some of the small crayfish operators (who could still sell crayfish, but only at much lower prices). For reasons that aren’t clear to me, the wine producers exporting to China don’t yet seem to have been able to re-direct their sales (fortunately, in that sense, New Zealand wine exports to China are small). On the other hand, barley producers don’t seem to have been that much adversely affected at all. That is pretty much what you’d expect in a commodity product: some cost, some disruption, some stress for firms involved, but at the end of the day overall global demand and supply conditions won’t have changed much if at all. What we don’t see is any sign of severe economywide consequences: there is no mention of the issue (or risks) in the Reserve Bank of Australia’s latest (lengthy) minutes (by contrast, changes in New Zealand population growth actually get a mention). It seems to a third-order issue at a macroeconomic level – and the overall economy is what governments should be thinking about when they consider economic risks and consequences.

Were it otherwise, by the way, that is what we have macroeconomic policy for, fiscal and monetary, to help smooth the economy in the face of disruptions, whether Covid, coercion, or whatever.

Would it be any different for New Zealand? It is always possible, but it is not as if Australia is the only country the PRC has tried coercion on. They’ve had a go at Norway, at South Korea, at Taiwan, at the Philippines, at Mongolia, at Japan, in one form or another. In some case the governments have buckled – lobbying for special interests will do that – but in no case was there any evidence of a very large adverse macroeconomic effect. Nothing of the bogeyman story that our “elites” would like us to believe, that to offend China would be to jeopardise our very economic security or prosperity.

Of course, people will point out that China has not yet tried sanctions on Australian iron ore (but they did with coal, only to run into problems, because they still needed coal). But isn’t dairy different? The whole path of industrial development and infrastructure does not hang on dairy in the way perhaps it does on iron ore. No doubt, but PRC consumers have a clear demand for milk products, Chinese production is still nowhere near Chinese consumption, and the PRC has a history of attempting coercion mostly on things that don’t affect them, and their people, too much. So, sure China could ban New Zealand dairy exports for a time, but the underlying demand won’t change, and if China takes a large chunk of New Zealand exports at present, China’s imports are small chunk of world production. Now there are complications: “dairy” is not some single homogenous product, and cross-border trade in dairy is small compared to global production, but markets will adjust. Perhaps the world price for our specific products would fall a bit, and for a time, but….the nature of commodity markets is that prices are volatile. Perhaps luxury products like lamb for the restaurant trade might be a more likely target, but then the experience with Norwegian salmon was that total Chinese imports of salmon barely changed, with suggestions that quite a bit of Norwegian made its way back into China via Vietnam.

Whatever the potential disruptions for individual firms – and they are real (for them) – it simply is not credible – given the (smallish) size of our total exports, the commodity nature of most, the share of trade with China – that any sort of conceivable economic coercion would represent a serious sustained threat to the New Zealand economy. Production of most of our commodity products would be unlikely to change much at all, and if the prices of some were to fall, well we are not unused to terms of trade fluctuations. And floating exchange rates are part of the mechanism for buffering such shocks if they do end up a bit larger than expected. The Governor continues to swear by the potency of monetary policy and the many champions of active fiscal policy do the same for it. There is little that is unique about our economy or our risks vis-a-vis China. Just the choices of our governments, egged on by business and university leaders (the interesting thing about Australia now is the lack of business voices calling for the government there to pander anew).

Perhaps also we might have more sympathy for individual New Zealand exporting firms if it was five years ago, when PRC issues and risks were just beginning to emerge, and the experience of economic coercion was both newer and little known here. But no firm that trades with Chinese counterparts now can say they are unaware of the risks. They continue to trade with their eyes wide open (or prefer to pretend a different reality). When you sup with the devil, the standard advice is to take a long spoon. It simply isn’t obvious why firms that deal with Beijing – that perhaps have CCP cells in their subsidiaries in China – warrant our sympathy or support at all; one might argue rather the contrary, in that their voices – lobbying the government to do and say as little as possible – serve the interests of Beijing more than those of New Zealanders as a whole. (And one can’t help wondering how willing New Zealand firms will be to send staff to China once travel is easier, given the sort of travel warnings other countries have issued – and the arbitrary kidnappings the regime has engaged in).

Thus, when the government talks of how it wants to “respect” China – and even has the gall to suggest Australia might show more “respect” – the “respect” they want to offer to these thugs and bullies (to understate the evil of one of the very worst regimes of the planet) is a kowtow not on behalf of you and me – the voters who elected them, the citizens they supposedly represent – but a small group of firms (small and large) only too happy to have you and me pay the price of insurance for their business (we see it also in the substantially government-funded China Council which mostly serves business interests too). The government might want people to believe all those interests are aligned, but they aren’t.

The government has talked a little of encouraging diversification, and of the need for firms to have resilience plans. It probably doesn’t have much substance unless and until the government is willing to tell firms that they are on their own, and to back that up consistently. Most firms don’t trade with Chinese counterparts because of any love for the CCP, but because they perceive the risk-adjusted returns are best there. But that risk seems to be underwritten – diminished sharply – at our expense by a government that chooses to go as soft as it possibly can on Beijing, to feed lines that – wittingly or not, and probably not intentionally – give aid and comfort to the regime.

Finally, it is worth remembering that there is no suggestion that New Zealand should cut trade with the PRC (although individual New Zealanders might increasingly choose to avoid tainted products and companies). The trade threat we are discussing here is entirely something the PRC might choose. It isn’t the way normal or decent states operate, and yet our government would prefer us to pretend that the PRC is just a normal state, run by decent “respectful” people. We can’t stop them disrupting two-way trade – which isn’t some gift to New Zealand firms, but of mutual benefit in normal circumstances – but we can be clear about the values we hold, the interests we want our governments to serve, the real threats that everyone knows but which the government refuses to discuss openly. Values are things that you are willing to pay a price for, and the test of whether they really are values only comes when the possible price has to be faced. I don’t suppose Jacinda Ardern, Nanaia Mahuta, Judith Collins or Gerry Brownlee really like the CCP and its action any more than I, or many readers of this blog, do. I don’t suppose the CCP thinks they do either. They don’t care a jot what leaders think privately. It is what they are willing to speak up about, and act on, that bothers them. And they are right to draw the distinction: private thoughts and feelings signify nothing, especially in a purported leader, without follow through.

As it happens, any “price” New Zealand as a whole might pay seems likely to be modest at worst (worse for some firms, but they’ve chosen – entirely voluntarily – to keep trading with the thugs). It isn’t as if any better stance New Zealand might take would now be world-leading or ahead of the pack. And there would be the comfort of working together – with likeminded countries, of the Five Eyes or beyond, to name evil where it is found, where it threatens values we hold dear, other democratic countries, and the freedoms of the Chinese people themselves.

Forecasting failure

The International Monetary Fund last week released their latest World Economic Outlook and associated economic forecasts. The value of these forecasts is not so much that they are likely to be correct – economic forecasting is, after all, largely either a mug’s game or a delusion – as that (a) their forecasts for all countries are done in a fairly common way, and (b) their previous forecasts are well-documented and readily accessible.

I took a look at a few of the IMF’s New Zealand projections. This chart, which I showed on Twitter last week, compares the IMF’s October 2019 (ie last pre-Covid) and April 2021 projections for New Zealand’s real GDP per capita for the period 2019-2026.

IMF projections for NZ

I thought three things were interesting about these IMF projections:

  • over seven years, the IMF thinks that real per capita GDP will have increased by a little over 4 per cent (a bit under 0.6 per cent per annum),
  • even by 2024 (three years away) the IMF still thinks that New Zealand’s real GDP per capita will be almost 2 per cent lower than they thought it would only 18 months ago,
  • the total gap between the two lines over the 2020-2024 period (covered by both sets of forecasts) is almost 15 per cent of a year’s GDP – simply gone, and with no sign in these projections that that loss will ever be recovered (even if, at some distant date, perhaps the two lines eventually converged).

This isn’t a comment about Covid or New Zealand’s Covid policy – all sorts of things may be going on in the thinking of the Fund’s forecasters – just a report of how much poorer the IMF now thinks New Zealand will be over the coming years than it thought only 18 months ago.

But perhaps, charitably/hopefully, you are thinking “well, that doesn’t look too good, but surely the rest of the world – Covid mess and all – must be worse, or at least as bad?”.

So here is the same chart for Australia.

imf aus

Which is probably the picture most countries would hope to have seen – some (inevitable) income losses last year, but a quick rebound and perhaps even a move to a future slightly higher growth trajectory. Note the other contrast to New Zealand: over 7 years the IMF thinks Australia will manage per capita growth of almost 8 per cent. Some part of the difference – although not the bulk of it – will reflect the fact that the IMF expects Australia’s unemployment rate by 2026 to be below 2019 levels, while in New Zealand the unemployment rate is expected to linger a bit higher than the pre-recession trough (itself higher than the previous pre-recession trough).

I didn’t do this comparison for a large group of countries, although for what it is worth the US chart looks more like Australia’s and that for Canada (not a stellar productivity performer in recent decades either) looks more like New Zealand’s.

I did have a look at the IMF’s forecasts for growth in real per capita GDP across all the advanced economies in the OECD (and the few non-OECD advanced countries). Over the period 2019 to 2026 we were well into the bottom quartile of OECD countries, at least on the Fund’s view of the outlook.

But it was this chart I found most sobering. Many of the countries we often like to compare ourselves with – from days past – are now much richer and more productive than New Zealand is. They are nearer the productivity frontier, and future growth can’t “just” be catching up. But in this chart I’ve shown the IMF’s forecasts for real per capita GDP for the countries with a 2019 level of labour productivity (OECD real GDP per hour worked, in PPP terms) roughly 10 per cent either side of New Zealand (the IMF does not publish productivity forecasts).

IMF projections for NZ and productivity peers

Just woeful.

Of course, the IMF could be quite wrong, not just about the absolute outlook for the world economy (that is almost certain) but also about the relative performance of New Zealand. But when independent observers take a look at your country, its performance, and its suite of policies and think you will over the next few years do so much worse than a group of your peers (whether, in our case, considerably richer and more productive Australia – to which it is easy for young New Zealanders to move – or to a group of advanced countries with similar levels of productivity to New Zealand, all looking to catch up) it really should be a wake-up call for our political and official “leaders”.

But in New Zealand it seems that all those responsible would prefer that no one noticed, prefer to ignore the utter failure projected (on top of past decades of relative decline), to burble on about wellbeing, and to deliver to our kids some deeply diminished legacy and opportunities. We once were world leaders, but now this.

(Out of interest, I wondered what the IMF was assuming about immigration/population: of all those advanced economies – not just the ones in the chart – we are forecast to have the third fastest rate of population growth over 2019 to 2026.)

Exporting: how does NZ compare?

In preparation for a meeting earlier this morning, I’d downloaded the OECD data on exports as a share of GDP. I thought it might be useful to share of a few of the charts. Most are updates of charts I’ve shown in years gone by, but it is good to be reminded of what has happened in New Zealand and how we compare with other OECD countries. In all the charts that follow I’ve excluded 2020 for two reasons: first, not all countries yet have data (at least in this database) and second, Covid, which affected individual countries quite differently and which should over time prove to be a blip. In all the charts other than the first I’ve shown data from 1995, which is when the OECD has complete data from.

Here, as context, is the New Zealand data since 1970. 1995 was not an outlier, high or low.

exports 1

Here is New Zealand relative to the median of all OECD countries (note that the OECD keeps doing its best to keep us near the more prosperous part of the OECD, by letting in new poorer countries: the latest country invited in (and now in the data) is Costa Rica).

exports 3

From the beginning of this chart, we’ve always exported a smaller share of GDP than then median OECD country has, and that gap has widened.

But, of course, one could expect the picture for other small countries to look different than one that included large countries. All else equal, large countries tend to do a smaller share of their GDP in foreign trade, just because there are relatively more opportunities at home (in the US, at one extreme, exports are equivalent to 12 per cent of GDP).

So in this chart I’ve shown (a) New Zealand, (b) the median for the G7 (larger) countries, and (c) the median for the small OECD countries (Belgium on down).

exports 4

And in this chart I’ve shown New Zealand against the small European countries (including Iceland).

exports 5

And New Zealand against the former Communist countries of eastern and central Europe, all small except Poland.

exports 6

These central and eastern European countries, all part of the EU, and often closely into supply chains for things like the German car industry, have been managed significant productivity growth, closing the gaps to some extent with the OECD leaders, over the last couple of decades.

There aren’t that many OECD countries that are both small and remote. In many respects both Iceland and Israel count, Costa Rica does, and so does New Zealand. Here are the records of those four countries.

exports 7

I’ve been increasingly intrigued by Israel which for all the reputation it has for high-tech industries, has done about as badly as New Zealand. Israel has a similar (modest) level of real GDP per hour worked to New Zealand and – coincidentally or not – has had very rapid population growth.

People are sometimes inclined to discount the central and east European story, noting (correctly) that the gross exports numbers used here don’t represent the extent of value-added in the respective economies, and thus may overstate the apparent success.

The OECD reports data on the extent of domestic value-added in gross exports, but only with a lag. The most recent data are for 2016 and that year two thirds of the exports of the median eastern/central European OECD member were domestic value-added, little changed over the previous decade. In New Zealand, by contrast, domestic value-added accounted for 87 per cent of total exports in 2016. The gap – between the export performance of New Zealand and that of the central and east European countries – is (very) real.

As I’ve said often here, exports are not uniquely special – indeed, I could have done the charts of imports and most of the pictures would have been quite similar – but that successful small economies (fast growing productivity growth ones) tend to be ones generating (or attracting) companies that find plenty of buyers for lots of their output abroad as well at home. That simply does not describe the New Zealand experience.

Questions

I’m a bit puzzled as to quite what has gone on in the New Zealand economy over the last year.

Of course, to some extent Statistics New Zealand must share that puzzlement. On their two real GDP measures – and there is no particular reason to favour one rather than the other – they aren’t sure whether by the December quarter last year real GDP was a bit higher or a bit lower than it was a year earlier. One measure shows a 1.2 per cent increase, and the other a 0.9 per cent fall. I tend to average the two measure, so a best guess now might be the GDP in December 2020 was about the same as in December 2019.

two GDP measure

The difference in the New Zealand GDP measures is almost the least of my concerns. Unfortunately there is always some difference in these two measures (trying to measure the same thing) and things have been a bit more difficult than usual during 2020 (especially so in the June quarter). We’ll keep getting that history revised for several years.

In Australia, the (generally highly-regarded) ABS reconciles their two real GDP measures: according to them Australia’s real GDP in the December quarter was 1.1 per cent lower than in the December 2019 quarter. On the face of it, such a difference seems plausible. We both had closed international borders, but Australia had more intensive sustained closed internal borders, and a few more Covid restrictions in place. (As it happens, if one looks at 2020 as a whole the falls in real GDP in New Zealand and Australia were more similar, reflecting our horrendous June quarter.)

But dig a little deeper and things get more curious. I’m really interested in labour productivity, and have regularly run here charts of labour productivity growth (and lack of it). So I checked out the hours data. We have two measures in the New Zealand: the HLFS measure of (self-reported) hours worked, and the QES measure (based on sample surveys of firms) of hours paid.

According to the QES, hours paid in the December 2020 quarter were 0.3 per cent higher than in the December 2019 quarter. That didn’t sound too implausible, especially if GDP (see above) hadn’t changed much over the period as a whole.

Unfortunately, the HLFS reports an increase of 3.9 per cent in hours worked over the same period. And while there are always differences in the two measures (a) over a full year they aren’t usually anywhere near that large, and (b) there was nothing like such a difference in the first year of the 1991 and 2009/09 recessions. Oh, and if one was going to expect a difference in 2020 one might have thought hours paid would have held up better than hours worked (between government wage subsidies, employers trying to hold onto staff, and public servants (eg immigration and biosecurity staff who don’t have much to do, but who couldn’t be laid of, by government decision). And since the HLFS employment rate – reported by the same people – fell by 0.8 percentage points over the year (and the unemployment rate rose) it really doesn’t seem very likely that the hours worked really jumped by 4 per cent.

In Australia, by contrast, the employment rate also fell by 0.8 percentage points last year and hours worked fell by 3.5 per cent. Which sounds fairly plausible: some job losses and a wider group of people working fewer hours than previously.

So what does all this mean for productivity? In the ABS official series, real GDP per hour worked rose by 2.5 per cent from December 2019 to December 2020. That seems plausible, not because Covid and closed borders were good for productivity but because tourism and related sectors (including eating out) have been particularly hard-hit, and those are typical low wage/low productivity sectors. Even if no individual worker is any more productive, the temporary loss of those lower-skilled jobs/hours will have averaged up real GDP per hour worked over the whole economy. A clue that this is what is going on is that the lift in average reported productivity was much larger in the June quarter (more Covid restrictions), unwinding to some extent subsequently,

What about New Zealand? I usually report an indicator of labour productivity growth calculated by averaging the two GDP series and the two hours series. If I do that for last year, we experienced -2.1 per cent average growth in real GDP per hour worked. And I simply do not believe that. But even if I just use the QES hours paid measure, we end up with a 0.1 per cent fall in real GDP per hour worked for the year, much worse (on those estimates, which will be revised over time) than Australia.

Closed borders etc should be bad for productivity. If we had true estimates, adjusted for changes in capacity utilisation, we might expect to see a fall in both countries. But there isn’t really a credible explanation for New Zealand doing quite so much worse than Australia last year (in December on December comparisons), other than problems with the data.

But then I’m also left with doubts about the GDP numbers themselves. Partly because in putting together quarterly estimates of GDP – and they really are just estimates at this stage – Statistics New Zealand needs to have some sense of how many people are here, as something to calibrate their sample surveys with. And there are oddities there too, highlighted by comparisons with Australia.

Recall that both countries have had largely closed borders since about this time last year. In the year to December 2019, Australia’s population was estimated to have risen by 1.5 per cent, while ours was estimated to have risen by 1.9 per cent. And yet in the year to December 2020 our population is estimated to have increased by 1.7 per cent, and Australia’s by 0.7 per cent. Both countries have rates of natural increase, that don’t change much year to year, of currently about 0.5 per cent per annum.

Of course, as we know people have continued to cross the borders, but in greatly reduced numbers. In New Zealand, for example, a net 39000 more people left New Zealand from the end of December 2019 to the end of February 2021 (more than the natural increase over that period). There have been net outflows (mostly quite small now) each month since March last year (125000 outflow from March to February). And yet the SNZ estimate is that the official (resident) population measure has grown almost as rapidly in 2020 as in 2019. Now, of course, lots of holidaymakers went home/came home – they were always “resident” at home, wherever they were spending at the time. Lots of temporary dwellers went home/came home. But the rate of population increase SNZ is reporting doesn’t make very much sense. Again, especially relative to Australia, which has had a 180000 net outflow over the twelve months to February (and presumably quite similar dynamics to New Zealand – lots of people leaving and really only Australian citizens and permanent residents coming in).

Perhaps both numbers are right, perhaps one country’s is and the other’s isn’t. Both are using (what I thought were similar) model estimates. But on the face of it, the Australian change in resident population looks a lot more plausible than New Zealand’s (and I’m not even reporting here GDP per capita numbers).

It isn’t obvious that we have any really good, timely, independent checks on these New Zealand numbers. I’m not offering answers, just highlighting questions and uncertainties. Unfortunately it might be a few years yet until we have a really good steer on what went on last year (if ever re the June quarter specifically) and what the new emergent trends are, including re relative productivity performances of Australia and New Zealand.

Productivity, Productivity Commission, and all that

I’ve written various pieces over the years on the Productivity Commission, both on specific papers and reports they have published, and on the Commission itself. I was quite keen on the idea of the Commission when it was first being mooted a decade or so ago. There was, after all, a serious productivity failure in New Zealand and across the Tasman the Australian Productivity Commission had become a fairly highly-regarded institution. But even from the early days I recall suggesting that it was hard to be too optimistic about the long-term prospects of the Commission, noting (among other things) the passing into history of the early Monetary and Economic Council, which had in its day (60s and early 70s) produced some worthwhile reports. In a small, no longer rich, country, maintaining critical mass was also always going to be a challenge, and agencies like The Treasury might be expected to have their beady eye on any budgetary resources allocated to the Commission, and on any good staff the Commission might attract or develop (a shift to another office block at bit further along The Terrace was unlikely to be much of a hurdle).

What I probably didn’t put enough weight on in those early days was the point that if governments weren’t at all interested in doing anything serious about New Zealand’s decades-long productivity failure, there really wasn’t much substantive point to a Productivity Commission at all, unless perhaps as something to distract the sceptics with (“see, we have a Productivity Commission”).

Ten years on, it isn’t obvious what the Commission has accomplished. There have been a few interesting research papers, some reports that may have clarified the understanding of a few policy points. But what difference have they made? Little, at least that I can see. Is the housing market disaster being substantively addressed? Is the state sector better managed? Is economywide productivity back on some sort of convergence path? Not as far as I can tell. Mostly that isn’t the Commission’s fault, although my impression is that the quality of the reports has deteriorated somewhat in recent years. But if politicians don’t care about fixing what ails this economy, why keep the Commission? It might be no more pointless than quite a few other government agencies and even ministries, but they all cost scarce real resources.

For the last 18 months I’ve been looking to appointment of the new chair of the Commission, replacing Murray Sherwin who has had the job for 10 years, as perhaps one last pointer to the seriousness – or otherwise – of Labour about productivity issues. There wasn’t much sign the Minister of Finance or Prime Minister cared much at all – or perhaps even understood the scale of our failure – but just possibly they might choose to appoint a new chair of the Productivity Commission who might lead really in-depth renewed intellectual efforts to address the failure, perhaps even in ways that might, by the force of their analysis and presentation, make it increasingly awkward for governments (Labour or National) to simply keep doing nothing. I wasn’t optimistic, partly because I’d watched Robertson and Ardern do nothing for several years, but also because – to be frank – it really wasn’t clear where they might find such an exceptional candidate even had they wanted one.

But then they removed all doubt last week when they announced the appointment of Ganesh Nana as the new chair. There is a strong sense that he is too close to the Labour Party. If that wasn’t ideal, it might not bother me much – especially given the thin pickings to choose a chair from among – if it were matched with a high and widespread regard among the economics and policy community for his rigour and intellectual leadership, including on productivity issues. Or even perhaps if he knew government and governent processes inside out (Sherwin, after all, was a senior public servant rather than himself being an intellectual leader). I don’t suppose the Nana commission is simply likely to parrot lines the Beehive would prefer – and can imagine some of Nana’s preferences being uncomfortable for them from the left – but this is someone who has spent 20+ years in the public economics debate in New Zealand, from his perch at BERL, and yet as far as I can tell his main two views of potential relevance are that (a) inflation targeting (of the sort adopted in most advanced economies) is a significant source of New Zealand’s economic underperformance, and (b) that a much larger population might make a big difference (notwithstanding use of that strategy for, just on this wave, the last 25 years or so.

Then there was this bumpf from the Minister’s press statement announcing the appointment

Ganesh Nana said he is excited to take up the position and looks forward to working with other Commission members and staff to focus on a broad perspective on productivity.

“Contributing to a transformation of the economic model and narrative towards one that values people and prioritises our role as kaitiaki o taonga is my kaupapa.  This perspective sees the delivery of wellbeing across several dimensions as critical measures of success of any economic model.

“Stepping into the Productivity Commission after more than 20 years at BERL will be a wrench for me and a move to outside my comfort zone.  However, this opportunity was not one I could ignore as the challenges facing 21st century Aotearoa become ever more intense.

“The role and nature of the work of the Commission is set to change in light of these pressing challenges.  I am committed to ensure the Commission will increasingly contribute to the wider strategic and policy kōrero,” Dr Nana said.

Whatever that means – and quite a bit isn’t at all clear to me – it doesn’t suggest any sort of laser-like focus on lifting, for example, economywide GDP per hour worked, in ways that might lift material living standards for New Zealanders as a whole.

(And then there was the unfortunate disclosure in the final part of the Minister’s press statement that the government has agreed that while functioning as a senior economic official, paid by the taxpayer, Nana is to be allowed to retain his almost half-share in his active economic consulting firm BERL. There is the small consolation that the Commission itself will not contract any business with BERL, but that should not be sufficient to reassure anyone concerned about what is left of the substance or appearance of good governance in New Zealand.)

A couple of weeks ago the Productivity Commission released a draft report on its “Frontier Firms” inquiry. The Commission does not control the inquiries it does – they are chosen by the government – and this one also seemed a bit daft to say the least, since “frontier firms” always seem much likely to arise from an overall economic policy environment that has been got right, rather than being something policymakers should be focusing on directly. But the Commission might still have made something useful, trying to craft something a bit more akin to a silk purse from the sow’s ear of a terms of reference.

I had thought of devoting a whole post to the draft report, and perhaps even making a formal submission on it, but since the report will be finalised under the Nana commission that mostly seems as though it would be a waste of time. And there is the odd useful point in the report, including the reminder that our productivity growth performance has remained dreadful by the standards of other modestly-productive advanced economies, and that we have relied on more hours worked, and the good fortune of the terms of trade, to avoid overall material living standards slipping much recently relative to other advanced economies. Productivity growth – much faster than we’ve achieved – remains central to any chance of sustainably lifting those material living standards and opening up other lifestyle etc choices.

But mostly the report is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. Just before the draft report was released the Commission released a short paper on immigration issues that they had commissioned. I wrote about that note, somewhat sceptically, at the time – sceptical even though the gist of the author’s case might not be thought totally out of line with some of my own ideas. It turned out that the Fry and Wilson work was the basis for the Commission’s own discussion of immigration in the draft report, a discussion that neither seems terribly robust nor at all well-connected to the “frontier firms” theme of the report. Perhaps the RSE scheme has problems, perhaps some low-skilled work visas are issued too readily, but…..apple orchards and vineyards didn’t really seem to be the sort of “frontier firms” the Commission had in mind in the rest of the report.

Perhaps my bigger concern was about their attempts to draw lessons from other countries. They, reasonably enough, suggest that there might be lessons from other small open advanced economies, perhaps especially relatively remote ones. But then they seem to end up mostly interested in places like Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands – all of which are in common economic area that is the EU (two even with the euro currency, most with no disadvantages of remoteness). I don’t think there was a single reference to Iceland, Malta, or Cyprus. Or to Israel – that country with all the high-tech firms and a productivity performance almost as bad as ours. And – though it might not be small, it has many similar characteristics to New Zealand – no mention at all of Australia. Remote Chile, Argentina and Uruguay get no mention – even though two of those three have had strong productivity growth in recent times – and neither, perhaps more surprisingly, do any of the (mostly small) OECD/EU countries in central and eastern Europe, many of which are now passing New Zealand levels of average labour productivity.

There wasn’t any systematic cross-country economic historical analysis or a rigorous attempt to assess which examples might hold what lessons for New Zealand. Instead, there a mix of things that might be music to the ears of a government that wants to be more active, and perhaps to punt our money again on the emergence of some mega NZ excellent firm(s) – without any demonstrated evidence that it (or its officials) can do so wisely or usefully – plus the odd thing that must have appealed to someone (eg the material on immigration – a subject that might still usefully warrant a full inquiry of its own, if the government would allow it, and when better than when we are in any case in something of a hiatus).

This will probably be the last post for this year, so I thought I’d leave you with a couple of charts to ponder.

The first is a reminder of just how little we know about what is going on with productivity – or probably most other aggregate economic measures – right now. As regular readers will know, I have updated every so often an economywide measure of labour productivity growth that averages the two different real GDP series (production and expenditure) and indexes of the two measures of hours (HLFS hours worked, QES hours paid).

mix of econ data

First, there is the huge difference in the two GDP measures. Whichever one one uses – but especially the expenditure measure – suggests a reasonable lift in average labour productivity this year (on one combination as much as 5 per cent). In the period to June there was an argument about low productivity workers losing their jobs, averaging up productivity for the remainder, but how plausible is that when hours are now estimated to be down only 1% or so on where they were at the end of last year (much less than, say, the fall in the last recession)? And thus how plausible is the notion of an acceleration in productivity growth given all the roadblocks the virus, and responses to it, have put in place this year. And although SNZ’s official population estimates have the population up 1.5 per cent this year (to September), if we take the natural increase data and the total net arrivals across the border data, they suggest a very slight drop this year in the number of people actually in New Zealand. I’m not sure, then, which of the economic data we can have any confidence in, although I’ll take a punt that the single least plausible of these numbers is the expenditure GDP one, and any resulting implication of any sort of real lift in productivity this year. SNZ has an unenviable job trying to get this year’s data straight.

But, of course, the real productivity challenge for New Zealand was there before Covid was heard of, and most likely be there still when Covid is but a memory. As we all know, New Zealand languishes miles behind the OECD productivity leaders (a bunch of northern European countries and the US), but in this chart I’ve shown how we’ve done over the full economic cycle from 2007 to 2019 relative not to the OECD leaders but to the countries that in 2007 either had low labour productivity than we did, or were not more than 10 per cent ahead of us then. For New Zealand I’ve shown both the number in the OECD database, and my average measure (which has the advantage of being updated for last week’s GDP release).

productivity 07 to 19

Whichever of the two NZ measures one uses, we’ve done better only than Greece and Mexico. Over decades Mexico has done so badly that the OECD suggests labour productivity in 2019 was less than 5 per cent higher than it had been in 1990. Even Greece has done less badly than that.

(As a quick cross-check, I also looked at the growth rates for this group of countries for this century to date. We’ve still done third-worst, beating the same two countries, over that period.)

It is a dismal performance. And there isn’t slightest sign that our government cares, or is at all interested in getting to the bottom of the problem, let alone reversing the decades of failure. Talking blithely about alternative measures of wellbeing etc shouldn’t be allowed to disguise that failure, which blights the living standards of this generation and the prospects of the next.

(And, sadly, there is no sign any political opposition party is really any better.)

Could do better?

Minus the question mark, that is the title of a new and fairly short report undertaken for the Productivity Commission by economists Julie Fry and Peter Wilson on “Migration and New Zealand’s frontier firms”. The Commission itself has been charged by the Minister of Finance with reporting on what could be done about so-called “frontier firms”, and has been casting about for various possible angles (apparently their draft report is due later this week). There is a Stuff article on the Fry and Wilson paper here, which begins this way

Despite its best efforts to become the next Silicon Valley, New Zealand has instead attracted a lot of nice people but very few trailblazers.

There probably have been – and still are – a few with that “next Silicon Valley” type of aspiration, but the key point is more like “lots of individually nice people, but probably not much economic gain to New Zealanders as a whole”.

Fry and Wilson’s own summary runs this way

Fry and Wilson key points

Fry and Wilson themselves seem a bit more sceptical on the economic value (to New Zealanders) of New Zealand’s large-scale immigration programme than they were in their short 2018 book that I wrote about here.

I’m a bit ambivalent about the report, even though – considered broadly – it goes in somewhat the same policy direction as the approach I’ve been championing for much of the last decade. Perhaps that is mostly because the Productivity Commission didn’t offer to pay very much for a report, and so the authors didn’t have the time or resource to consider the issues around the economics of New Zealand immigration in any great depth. A serious look at New Zealand’s immigration policy and the connection to New Zealand’s underwhelming economic performance would require, for example, a full Productivity Commission inquiry devoted just to that issue, but the government determines inquiry topics and I gather they’ve refused to have an immigration policy one done, even though immigration policy is one of the larger discretionary government structural policy interventions in the economy. But I can’t blame Fry and Wilson for that.

But unfortunately the (presumed resource) constraint means that the report really isn’t much more than an initial view that large scale immigration over the last 30 years probably hasn’t done much good for New Zealanders, and that hence somewhat less in future would more likely be beneficial. I don’t disagree – and, of course, have gone further than the authors in my hypothesis about the damage large scale immigration may have done (a story they describe as “plausible but untested”) – but who is the report going to persuade? The report doesn’t seek to engage with a broader academic literature that tends to be quite positive about economic gains from immigration, at least in the advanced world as a whole, or with the advocacy for it – including in a New Zealand context – by outfits like the IMF or the OECD. They might – as I do – think many of these results don’t stand up to close scrutiny (eg on the IMF here, or the OECD here), or may not have much application to a single extraordinarily-remote location, but they neither engage with the papers, not articulate their critiques. There isn’t much New Zealand specific formal research, but somewhat to my surprise, there wasn’t even a reference to the big advocacy piece the New Zealand Initiative did in 2017 (reviewed and critiqued at length here).

But in the rest of this post I wanted to comment mostly on two areas where I wasn’t particularly convinced, even as someone generally somewhat sympathetic to the thrust of the report. The first is the claim – also in those Key Points above – that New Zealand’s policy for attracting skilled migrants is “close to international best practice already”. The authors seem to offer little or no support for this proposition, but even if it were true it would not be particularly reassuring given that (a) we take a lot of migrants, as a percentage of New Zealand’s population, and (b) the evidence suggests that on average migrants are no more skilled than comparable New Zealand cohorts. The large numbers of people who have managed skilled migrant entry as low-level retail or cafe managers, for example, suggests that if this is world best practice, world practice is pretty poor (which in many cases is true no doubt, but that is their problem not ours). But more specifically, we also know that the New Zealand system for granting residency to “skilled migrants” is now strongly skewed in favour of people who are already in New Zealand – explicitly favouring people from abroad with New Zealand qualifications and New Zealand work experience (with bonus points for living in remote corners of this remote country). That favours absorption and integration, but generally not outstanding excellence: our universities generally not being top-tier, and our economy not being some global centre of excellence. It simply isn’t that easy for, say, a young family – parents perhaps good graduates of top 20 overseas universities – to just get residency in New Zealand, not without first relocating temporarily to the ends of the earth on a short-term visa in the hope residency eventually works out. To the extent there is benefit for New Zealand putative “frontier firms” in migration, it some of those sorts of people – with some proven work experience globally – who are likely to be more valuable than some 21 year old student studying at Massey who couldn’t get into Stanford or Cambridge.

Of course – and here I think Fry and Wilson probably agree – not that many top tier foreign people are likely to want to live and work here (as distinct from the boltholers), but lets not get complacent that our current skilled migration system is really fit for purpose, whether as to target number or conditions of entry (and although it isn’t dealt with in this report, a lot of our residency grantees don’t even come in via the skilled migrant pathway).

(On that “not that many top tier foreign people are likely to want to live and work here”, see my doubts expressed a few years ago about the the-new Global Impact Visas. Rereading that old post yesterday, nothing in what we have seen and heard of the scheme’s operation so far would lead me to materially alter my view of the prospects.)

The Productivity Commission over the last couple of years has emphasised quite a bit a desire to see New Zealand-based firms investing more beavily in technology. I’ve been uneasy about this line of argument because at times the Commission has seemed to put the cart before the horse, not digging deeply enough to understand why the New Zealand economy is underperforming and more profitable business opportunities aren’t apparent. This emphasis seems to carry over to the Fry and Wilson report – no doubt delivering something consistent with what the client was looking for. There are several pages (in what is really only a 30 page report) on opportunities (“very significant upside productivity potential”) if only we made it materially harder for firms to hire foreigners.

The predominant mechanism they seem to have in mind – whether in relation to students, working holidaymakers, or RSE workers (there is a whole section on the fruit industry) – is that if labour is harder and more expensive to get, firms will invest in technology. On the one hand, they seem to be buying into a model in which immigration has driven down wage rates (for which the evidence, considered broadly – as opposed to a few concentrated subsectors – is quite thin; in New Zealand wages have risen faster than GDP per hour worked over the last few decades). But there are also disconcerting parallels with a couple of very shaky arguments. Back in the disinflationary 1980s there was sometimes an argument used (in the UK and here) that a high real exchange rate – pretty much an inevitable part of a transition towards low inflation – was really quite good because it would encourage strong firms to invest more heavily in advanced technology etc to retain competitiveness. There was never much sign of that in the aggregate. And more recently we here claims that materially increasing minimum wages, from already quite high (relative to median wages) levels, will itself boost productivity and stimulate investment in technology. There might be some of that – firms will look for ways to mitigate the forced increase in labour costs – but there is no evidence in support of it as some sort of economywide pro-productivity strategy. And so I’m also uneasy when this argument is applied so simply to immigration. Perhaps there is something to it at an individual firm level, but it is unlikely to hold much at an economywide level. (Relatedly, much of the discussion in the paper seems to be about average labour productivity, and very little about the – conceptually more important – total factor productivity. One can raise labour productivity in ways that still leave the overall economy worse off – Think Big in the 1980s was probably such an example.)

The authors seem to favour a much lower level of non-citizen immigration to New Zealand (on average over time), not just nipping and tucking in a few individual migration approval streams. But if so, then their paper seems to neglect a rather important adjustment channel. As they note, historically New Zealand economists tended to emphasise the significance of the short-run demand effects of migration (and the well-established point that the short-run demand effects tend to outweigh near-term supply effects plays an important part in my own story). But if immigration by non-citizens is cut back markedly and for a prolonged period we would expect to see a reduction (perhaps a quite significant one) in the real exchange rate. And – to take the fruit industry as an example – a lower exchange rate might well more than outweigh any sector-specific wage effects from reduced access to migrant workers, leaving no particular incentive for the industry to invest more aggressively in technology to replace labour (for the existing tradables sector this is my story of how adjustment works once reform is done not just to an indvidual firm – deprived of access to labour – but at an economywide level). It isn’t that I really disagree with the Fry and Wilson direction of policy, but their analysis seems a bit too simple, and also inclined to treat the existing structure of the economy as a given (whereas on my argument I think we would, over time, see quite a different mix of sectors).

Fry and Wilson end their paper with some specific post-Covid suggestions for the government

fry and wilson 2

I’m sceptical that the 4th bullet has any content to it, although the broad direction of their recommendations isn’t one I’m uncomfortable with. My own suggestions (from a speech a few years ago) are along somewhat similar lines.

reddell immigration specifics

Finally, in their paper Fry and Wilson note of my views

While plausible, Reddell’s hypothesis has not been tested empirically. However, it is
possible that the natural experiment provided by the Covid-19-induced border closure will
enable more solid conclusions to be drawn.

I don’t think that is so. Most importantly, for a natural experiment you really want New Zealand immigration policy changed with all else unchanged, but this year too much has changed all at once for any sort of read, let alone a clean one. Among those changes, the differential ways different countries have handled Covid, massive fiscal stimulus (which, all else equal, tends to put upward pressure on the real exchange rate), most other countries also closing their borders to a greater or lesser extent, and a big disruption to key elements of our tradables sector. Oh, and all parties expect – political parties seem to champion – a return to the immigration status quo ante just as soon as possible.

For anyone wanting to read more of my story, there is this older paper from 2013, a speech on related topics from 2017, and a chapter in a recent book on New Zealand policymaking in which I look at some of the issues around New Zealand’s long-term economic underperformance, with an emphasis on the notion that however sensible large scale immigration may be for some countries, it seems not to have been more recently so for a remote land heavily reliant on a fixed stock of natural resources, and with few or no asymmetric shocks having worked in our favour for 100 years or more.

Coda

And so we now have a single political party in a position to form a majority government. Between our single-chamber Parliament and the historically very tight party discipline on Labour MPs, the new government will be able to do whatever they like over the next three years. And where significant things are not done, it will be entirely down to them: their choice.

Of course, they didn’t promise much, so most don’t seem to expect much. But the issues, challenges, and problems don’t go away just a party or government chooses to ignore them. House prices for example – where the Prime Minister has consistently refused to suggest she might act in ways designed to markedly lower the price of urban land/houses.

Or, and the economic issue that mostly drove the creation of this blog, New Zealand’s dismal long-term economic performance. In short, productivity growth (and the lack of it), and our continued decline relative to other advanced economies.

The outlook wasn’t good before Covid – the last government was doing nothing, and Labour was promising nothing, that would have prevented those well-established and dismal trends continuing. But now there is Covid to confront too.

One view of the outlook was contained in the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook forecasts published last week. The IMF doesn’t have a particularly good track record as a forecaster, but its forecasts do have two particular values at present: first, they are compiled consistently for a wide range of countries, and second, they forecast/project five years ahead, which on most readings is currently far enough out that one could think of things by then being back to some sort of new normal. For what it is worth, the IMF also has no particular partisan interest in New Zealand, but has also, over the years, tended to run relatively upbeat stories about New Zealand when it does comment.

Unfortunately, the IMF does not publish productivity (eg real GDP per hour worked, or MFP) forecasts. But here is a chart showing their forecasts for growth in real GDP per capita for their “advanced country” grouping over the period from 2019 (pre Covid) to 2025).

IMF WEO 0ct 20

Third worst of all the advanced countries over this period, at least on the IMF’s telling. And do note that the countries a few to either side of us all have materially higher levels of labour productivity than New Zealand does, while the countries to the far left of the chart – best-performers – are mostly the countries (I’ve previously highlighted here) that started way behind and are now matching, and move to roar ahead of, New Zealand. On these projections, our relative decline – underway now for 70 years – keeps on keeping on.

Are there any silver linings? I couldn’t find any when I dug a bit deeper:

  • as I noted, since these numbers are for 2019 to 2025 they shouldn’t be affected by either measurement challenges, or real differences in economic structure, that contribute to quite different GDP outcomes for some quarters this year,
  • the difference also can’t be down to differences in how quickly unemployment drops back to normal (itself a thing amenable to policy, especially in a country with its own exchange rate): in most countries by 2025 the IMF thinks that unemployment rates will have got back to pretty close to 2019 levels (NZ’s is about 5 per cent, so not quite there, but it won’t explain anything like the differences in the real GDP chart).  For what they are worth, the IMF also publishes output gap estimates for G7 countries, and they are also back near zero by 2025. 
  • I didn’t look deeply into what border assumptions the IMF is making, but I did check their population growth projections, and they continue to forecast high rates of population growth over 2019 to 2025 (hardly lower than the rate for the previous six years, and third fastest in this group of countries), which again suggests they must think something like a new-normal re-establishes before too long.
  • the IMF seems to think that investment as a share of GDP will also be more or less back to pre-Covid rates by 2025 (unfortunately in New Zealand business investment in the last decade was very subdued, especially once one took account of the needs of a rapidly-rising population).

Sadly, the only realistic interpretation one can take is that the IMF thinks that over 2019 to 2025, on current government policies, New Zealand’s productivity growth performance –  labour productivity and MFP – will be simply shocking.  Most probably negative –  the only way to square falls in real GDP per capita, unemployment returning towards normal, and a reasonable level of investment – and almost certainly far worse than in almost all other advanced economies, and especially far worse than the performance in the countries that were aiming to close gaps with the OECD leaders.

It is a really dismal outlook.

Of course, it is only one set of forecasts.  The IMF may be completely wrong, even specifically about New Zealand’s relative performance.  But it isn’t clear what about policy or the economic environment should be expected to generate decent productivity growth over 2019 to 2025, especially after the fairly dismal performance in the pre-Covid years.

One would like to suppose it was the sort of issue the Minister of Finance would be intensely focused on.  One would like to think that The Treasury’s post-election briefing would have extensive analysis on the issue and possible remedies, and indeed how political party promises may even worsen the outlook.  But such is the malaise around New Zealand economic policy and performance that it seems unlikely.

Changing tack, for some months I’ve been writing much less here than I’d really intended or hoped to. I’ve made occasional references to my indifferent health. I’ve had bugs occasionally in the past that have hung around for a couple of months, never amenable to medical diagnosis, and then eventually gone away and I kept expecting this would be the same. But despite some moderately good weeks at times – this week wasn’t one of them – it hasn’t, and my doctor now reckons that I have some – perhaps fairly moderate – version of chronic fatigue syndrome. And while it still seems most likely that it will eventually go away again, there is no immediate timeframe for that. It seems a rather pathetic thing to have, but I can’t really ignore, say, the three daytime naps I needed on Tuesday.

As a result, I’ve decided for the time being to stop attempting to maintain any sort of regular blog output. As I’ve said to various people who’ve asked, I’m probably only able to operate at 50 or 60 per cent of normal, and while I’m fortunate in not having to try to hold down a fulltime job, I have other fixed commitments (household and other) that demand almost all that energy. Since there are good days, and even a few relatively good weeks, and there many issues (even if I don’t have the concentration to dig into all of them as I’d like), I expect I will probably post here from time to time. But I won’t be trying to meet any schedule. For anyone who wants to not miss out on those posts, feel free to subscribe to get posts by email, and I also use Twitter (@MHReddell) to, among other things, provide links to any posts here.

And now it is time for a lie down…..

National’s five-point plan

At the end of my post yesterday morning I noted briefly

Of course, if Labour’s approach is bad, at least (being the government) it is on the table.  It is now less than two months until voting starts and we have no idea what National’s approach might be, but no reason to suppose it would be materially different or better.

Within a couple of hours we had a plan from National, or at least what Todd Muller describes as “the framework for the party’s Plan to create more jobs and a better economy”.   Just like the Prime Minister, he has a five-point plan, outlined in a speech given in Christchurch yesterday.   If you want the potted version there is even a one-page graphic.

graphic nat

I was no more impressed than with Muller’s previous speech, although at least he has dropped the (historically ill-grounded) paeans to Michael Joseph Savage.   There still seems to be a great deal of me-too-ism about it: we’ll be just like Labour only more competent.   If he has values and a political philosophy, they seem to bear little or no relationship to those the National Party was built on.    It is the sort of speech any (losing) centrist Labour Party leader could have given.

It is explicitly an economic speech, but there was no obvious economic framework, no sign that he or his advisers had thought hard about what has ailed the New Zealand economy for a long time, about how National might fix it, and how that might tie together with the immediate recovery needs (having been accused by one commenter yesterday of being an “armchair theorist”, here was my post-Covid note on such issues).

Anyway, to step through the speech.  First, there was the flawed framing.

According to the Reserve Bank, New Zealand faces its worst economic downturn for 160 years. I don’t think the magnitude of that has yet sunk in to the public or the media. That’s partly because, these past few weeks, everyone has quite rightly been more preoccupied with the shambles at the border and in our quarantine centres. But, if the Reserve Bank is to be believed, ahead of us lies the greatest economic and jobs crisis that anyone in this room has ever known.

Even though the fall in the GDP in the month of April was absolutely huge –  could we have measured it, perhaps 40 per cent –  no one supposes that what lies ahead is worse than New Zealand’s experience of the Great Depression.   Most likely, what we face is something more like, perhaps a bit worse than, the severity of the late 80s and early 90s.  That’s quite bad enough.

And a scale of loss and dislocation that National, at least in this framework speech, appears to have no answer for.

Thus, we learn that they are quite happy with macro policy as it stands and don’t appear to think the Reserve Bank needs to be doing anything more (than the little they have done so far).  And we get rather florid rhetoric on fiscal policy, supported by (it appears) nothing.

Since the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the economic and political debate in New Zealand has tended to be on the quantity of borrowing or debt repayment each year. These remain critically important. Getting back to fiscal surplus and then paying down debt to 20 per cent of GDP is necessary, not least because New Zealand will inevitably confront another natural, economic or health disaster in the next couple of decades or beyond. But just as important is to focus on the quality of spending.

Labour forecasts net core debt will reach 53.6 per cent of GDP in 2024 under their policies. That’s an eye-wateringly high level. We will work hard to try to keep it lower than that, which would put New Zealand in a better position to recover. But of far greater longer-term importance is that Labour projects that under its policies, but with a far stronger economic environment than we face today, net core debt will still be as high as 42 per cent by 2034. That means Labour intends a mere 11 per cent reduction in net core debt, over a decade. At that rate, we will not get back to the safe 20 per cent mark until perhaps the mid-2050s.

National does not regard Labour’s attitude as anything like prudent. It would leave an enormous debt, not so much to our children but to our grandchildren. And it would leave our children and grandchildren – and also ourselves – profoundly vulnerable were the global economic and strategic outlook anything other blissful for three successive decades. Covid-19, the trade war between the US and China and this city’s recent history all say that is not a safe bet.

There aren’t many specifics there but Muller is clear that National would be spending less (not necessarily a lot less, but less) than Labour, so that source of support for a faster demand recovery is apparently off the table.   He plays up the debt numbers but never mentions the large assets (NZSF) on the other side, which mean that even the peak debt numbers would last year have put us among the less indebted half of the OECD.  He never engages at all with the possibility that lower long-term interest rates might –  just might –  make a higher long-term debt ratio sensible.  And, of course, there is no hint of when he expects to get back to 20 per cent of GDP, or on what sort of path.

(To be clear, I am not a fan of high levels of public debt, but on a proper measure we’d peak at around 40 per cent of GDP even on this government’s numbers.  And like most rhetorical fiscal hawks in the current context, he offers no other path for a prompt return to full employment).

And then, of course, there is the question of how seriously to take the talk of future fiscal restraint. There was this, for example,

Let me tell you what that means in practice. In 2020/21 and 2021/22, my Government will not be scared of investing more in retraining, if we are confident it will genuinely improve productivity, lower unemployment, increase the tax take, reduce the cost of welfare and improve wellbeing over the following decade. My Government will not be scared of investing over the next decade more in the first 1000 days of life, if we are confident it will improve outcomes from the school system for a generation. Similarly, social housing and mental health. Nor will my Government be afraid of investing more in roads and public transport, if we are confident they will still be improving New Zealand’s productivity 50 or 100 years hence. And my Government will not be afraid to invest more in water storage or carbon-replacement technologies, if they will support higher living standards and greater wellbeing on an even longer timeframe.

It would be surprising if a public transport project now were boosting productivity 100 years hence, but you are left wondering what Muller wouldn’t be spending on.

Now, to be fair, he tells us there will be a series of major speeches outlining details of the five point plan.   But the gist –  what was in yesterday’s speech –  wasn’t encouraging,   Of their headings

Responsible Economic Management consisted of nothing but rhetoric.  We can probably all agree that quality of spending matters, but there is little in National’s track record suggesting they’ve done much better on that in the past (just different specific waste) and –  more importantly –  no clue as to why we’d think they’d better in future.  Labour has been spraying money at favoured entities in recent weeks, but which ones (specifically) is National opposing?

Delivering infrastructure had this promise

Before the end of this month, I will announce the biggest infrastructure package in this country’s history. It will include roads, rail, public transport, hospitals, schools and water.

My heart sank somewhat.  A new and different Think Big? But lets see the specifics.

Muller boasts of delivery, but wasn’t it the previous National government that put in place the contracting structure for Transmission Gully.  And I’m always a bit surprised at National using the Christchurch repair and rebuild process as a plus.

Reskilling and retraining our workers is flavour of the day (it was a big part of the PM’s speech the other day too), this time with rhetoric about capturing something called the “Creativity Wave” in the 2020s.    But from a party offering no more macro stimulus to demand (see above), uninterested in our high real exchange rate, and (previously) opposed to fees-free it all has the feel of rhetoric and displacing headline unemployment figures at present.   When there are jobs on offer, firms and individuals tend to invest in the skill development required.

A Greener, Smarter Future may be good political rhetoric, or the sort most Labour ministers could have delivered, but seems about as empty.   This section concludes thus

National’s vision is of a post-Covid economy that is greener, smarter and better than the one we had before.

Sounds fine, but what (specifically) is the government’s role in getting there, and what is National proposing to do to give us some hope of achieving all this environmental stuff while also reversing the decades-long decline in relative productivity?  Nothing was on offer in this speech.

And finally, there was

Building Stronger Communities.  I’m sure Muller is genuine about some of this, but what of this gratuitous line

Every community needs strong community institutions to maintain and enhance their social capital. Many of those institutions were damaged a generation ago, and I don’t believe they have been repaired.

Another opportunity for Muller to have a go at the reforms instituted by the 4th Labour government and by his own mentor and former boss Jim Bolger?  So the decline of churches, sport clubs, Scouts and Guides, marriage and so on is down the evil reforms of the 80s and 90s is it?  If so, which of those reforms does he think specifically contributed and which is he proposing to undo?    Of course, the answer to the latter question is “none of them”.  It is just shallow opportunistic political rhetoric.

I don’t really disagree with Muller that

our opponent doesn’t believe in having a plan, hasn’t delivered on her promises, and has a track record of failure across the board.

But when he claims

Ladies and Gentlemen, in the end, I have a very simple message for you and all New Zealanders this election campaign: National has a plan to rebuild our communities and our economy, to get Kiwis back to work and to deal with the economic and jobs crisis.

There was nothing at all in the speech to lead any reasonable observer to think it was so.   Perhaps those future “major speeches” will give us something concrete, as part of a serious well-thought-out strategy that links the immediate challenges with the longer-term deep-seated problems in the New Zealand economy.  But on what we’ve seen so far, I wouldn’t be optimistic about that.

 

Small economies

The Productivity Commission last week released a report done for them by David Skilling on “frontier firms”.  That is the topic of the Commission’s latest inquiry, handed to them by the Minister of Finance.  Personally, I reckon the topic is mis-specified and will tend to drive people to focus on symptoms more than causes, but I’ll come back to that in more detail at some point.

Skilling was formerly Executive Director of the former (somewhat centre-left) New Zealand Institute and these days runs a consultancy, based in the Netherlands, with a focus on small advanced economies.  I’m a bit under the weather today so in this post, I wanted to touch on only two points from his report.

The first was to draw attention to footnote 10

10 The one policy foundation setting that I identify as having had a meaningful impact on New Zealand’s productivity performance and the development of frontier firms is with respect to immigration (or more precisely, the absence of a strategic migration policy).  The substantial net migration inflows that New Zealand has received over the past 25 years has been a strong source of support for headline GDP growth, but has created a series of distortions and pressures in the New Zealand economy: infrastructure and cost pressures, greater residential real estate demand (with implications for allocation of investment capital), downward wage pressure that deters business investment, as well as upward exchange rate pressure.  An explicit immigration policy that was focused on quality and filling skills gaps, with lower gross inflows, would create a more supportive environment for higher levels of international engagement by New Zealand firms (although the transmission mechanism to outcomes is more indirect than those discussed in the body of this paper).

There isn’t much about policy that I agree with Skilling on  –  and find it strange that in a 30 page report with an emphasis on the tradables sector, this is the only mention of the exchange rate –  but, as you can imagine, I agree with much of that.

And the second was about this chart

Forbes 2000

of which he observes

This seems to be the case in small advanced economies also.  One of the striking characteristics of successful small advanced economies is their reliance on large firms, with a disproportionate representation of small economy MNCs in measures such as the Forbes Global 2000 (Exhibit 6).

I wasn’t particularly familiar with this listing, so went and had a look.  But I also had a look at a wider range of countries.  For his paper, Skilling uses the IMF classification of advanced economies, focusing on those with a population under 20 million.   However, that grouping leaves out the central and eastern European countries (the Baltics, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia) that are both OECD and EU members, and which are either catching or already overtaking New Zealand in terms of labour productivity (all but Hungary have had faster productivity growth than New Zealand since, say, 2007 – just prior to the last recession).

I’m not really going to dispute what I take to be one of Skilling’s propositions, that a successful New Zealand would probably see more large and internationally successful firms.   Nonetheless, it is perhaps worth noting a few things:

  • the Forbes listing is of public companies.  That’s fine; it is what it is.  But the implied market capitalisation of Fonterra makes it large enough that were it be tomorrow transformed fully into a listed company, it would almost certainly make the list (five Greek banks, with a combined market cap less than Fonterra make the list).  If anything, Skilling is too kind about Fonterra –  which has woefully underperformed the marketing pitches of 20 years ago –  but big and international it still is,
  • while we are the only advanced country in Skilling’s chart not to have a company in the list, none of the Baltics nor Slovenia nor Slovakia has an entrant either.   The Czech Republic and Hungary (both about twice our population) have one and two  respectively, in the Czech case a power company that appears to have a market capitalisation not much larger than that of Meridien,
  • Iceland and Luxembourg are both small successful advanced countries; the former has no entrants on the Forbes list, and the latter quite a few (more per million than any of the countries shown).
  • Portugal and Greece are not that successful small advanced countries, and both have several entrants on the list.

I guess A2 and Xero are increasingly not New Zealand companies, but appear large enough that they could well have shown up on a listing like this.

There are always going to be pitfalls in any illustrative indicator –  this one simply happened to catch my eye –  but if I agree with Skilling that it makes sense to pay attention to other small advanced economies in trying to make sense of the New Zealand story (and of our constraints and policy options), starting from where we are now, it is probably at least as useful to think about the central and eastern European countries –  and Israel, which does quite well on various of Skilling’s indicators but has productivity very similar to ours –  as the more traditional western European ones.

queen 4

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