Emissions policy and immigration policy

A month or so ago I ran a couple of posts on New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions in international context.  Readers may recall that New Zealand now has the second highest emissions per unit of GDP of any OECD country, having moved up from sixth in 1990.

emissions per GDP

As part of the Paris climate change accord process, New Zealand has made ambitious promises to reduce its total emissions substantially.   This was the wording from the terms of reference for the new Productivity Commission inquiry into how best the economy might adjust given the climate targets

New Zealand has recently formalised its first Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement to reduce its emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The Paris Agreement envisages all countries taking progressively ambitious emissions reduction targets beyond 2030. Countries are invited to formulate and communicate long-term low emission development strategies before 2020. The Government has previously notified a target for a 50 per cent reduction in New Zealand greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050.

At present, total emissions are still above 1990 levels, not a common outcome for OECD countries.

One of the reasons for that is that we have had much faster population growth than most advanced countries.    Indeed, in their recent report on emissions etc, the Ministry for the Environment even listed population growth as first among the various constraints or challenges New Zealand faces.

Some of the challenges New Zealand faces when reducing emissions include:

  • a growing population
  • almost half our emissions are from agriculture where there are fewer economically viable options currently available to reduce emissions
  • an electricity sector that is already 80.8 per cent renewable (meaning that we have fewer ‘easy wins’ available to us compared to other countries who can more easily make significant emissions reductions  by switching to renewable sources of electricity).

As I noted in my earlier post, I was pleasantly surprised to find the population issue listed so prominently.

It is hard to disagree with them  But it does leave one wondering what advice or research/analysis they have done, and provided to Ministers –  including when the target was being adopted –  about the implications of New Zealand’s immigration policy.  Our non-citizen immigration policy pushes up the population by almost 1 per cent per annum (against an, admittedly unrealistic, benchmark of zero inward migration of non-citizens).  Have they analysed the potential costs and benefits from lowering the non-citizen immigration target relative to other possible abatement (or compensation) mechanisms?  Perhaps there is credible modelling that suggests the overall abatement costs to New Zealanders would be lower through other plausible mechanisms.  But given that population increases appear first, and without further commentary, on their lists of “challenges” it would be good to know if they have done the work.

On reflection, I think I will lodge an Official Information Act request to find out.

And so I did, writing thus to the Ministry for the Environment

I was interested to read in the snapshot emissions document released this morning that the Ministry regards increasing population as one of the top challenges New Zealand faces in meeting its emissions reductions target.

Accordingly, I request copies of all advice to the Minister for the Environment or ministers responsible for climate change policy, any and all internal research or analysis documents, and any advice to MBIE or the Mnister of Immigration, on the implications of New Zealand’s immigration policy for (a) the setting of, or (b) the successful pursuit of, or (c) costs of pursuing New Zealand’s emissions reduction target.   Among my interests is in any material on the relative costs of various options for achieving the target, including whether any research and modelling has been done on the costs of cutting the immigration targets relative to other abatement methods/policies.

This request covers all material since the start of 2014.

I deliberately went back to the start of 2014 to encompass both the period leading up to the adoption of New Zealand’s emissions reductions commitments, and the period since then, when presumably officials had to think hard about how policy might assist in minimising the costs to the economy of meeting the target the government had committed us to.

A short time ago, I received a full and comprehensive reply from the Ministry for the Environment, the ministry which has the lead responsibility for official advice on climate change and emissions related issues.

After quoting my request back to me, Roger Lincoln, Director Climate Change, replied

“No documents were found within the scope of your request. For this reason, your request is being refused under the grounds of 18(e) – the document that contains the information requested does not exist or can’t be found.”

I wasn’t really expecting there would be much.  But nothing at all, not a shred, whether before the government entered into these commitments, or subsequently, or even just before they openly listed the growing population first in the list of challenges New Zealand faces in reducing emissions?   That did take me by surprise.   So complete is the absence of material, that it is almost as if they were determined not to consider the issue, or (say) point it out to MBIE, the government’s leading immigration policy advisors.  Whether that was because senior officials internally discouraged them looking at the issue, or whether one or other of their ministers issued such guidance, we don’t know.

But MfE is clearly aware enough of the issue to put it top of their recently-published list of challenges.  And yet has done no research, no analysis, and provided no advice on the interaction between immigration policy and the costs of meeting our climate change commitments.

Not long enough, Stephen Toplis incurred the wrath of a senior public official for suggesting that, in his view, if the Reserve Bank did not adopt a particular line, it could be considered “negligent” –  ie not doing its job properly.   And that was just a conditional statement about something that hadn’t happened yet.      When the Ministry for the Enviroment has done nothing at all on immigration policy and the additional costs it appears to impose to meet the emissions targets –  not even simply pointing out the possible connection to MBIE –  whether in providing advice on formulating commitments, or on how the country might best meet those government commitments – that looks quite a lot like actual negligence, with the potential for real economic costs to New Zealanders.

I do hope that when their Issues Paper for the emissions reduction inquiry emerges, the Productivity Commission will prove to have taken the issue rather more seriously.

The Secretary to the Treasury on productivity

A speech appeared on The Treasury’s website the other day.   It was, we were told, by Gabs Makhlouf, Secretary to the Treasury, and given as the closing address at a Productivity Hub Workshop last Friday.  The Productivity Hub is a grouping of government agencies, hosted at the Productivity Commission

which aims to improve how policy can contribute to the productivity performance of the New Zealand economy and the wellbeing of New Zealanders

It is a laudable aim.  I’ve been to a few of their events, and at times they’ve had some interesting and stimulating speakers.   Whatever the event was that Makhlouf was speaking at, it has a very low profile  –  there is nothing about it on the Hub’s homepage, or anywhere else I can see.  I’ve lodged a request for the papers and presentations.

I’m all in favour of pro-active release of material by government agencies, but I was a little curious why The Treasury chose to make this speech something on-the-record.  Closing addresses usually seek to summarise and draw lessons from what has been heard at the conference/workshop.   But in Makhlouf’s speech there is no reference to any of the papers that had been presented, or any of the material discussed at the workshop.    Perhaps he just wanted to signal that he, Secretary to the Treasury, treats productivity as something important (on checking, I found that Treasury had also published his brief remarks to a couple of previous Productivity Hub events)?

Whatever the reason, when the Secretary to the Treasury  –  head of the government’s main economic advisory agency –  talks about productivity, it should be worth taking note of.   After all, presumably even now Treasury is in the process of pulling together the analysis and advice that will form the basis for their Briefing to the Incoming Minister (BIM) after the election.     We might hope they will be (a) pointing out to the Minister of Finance that New Zealand’s productivity performance is woeful, and (b) offering a compelling narrative and set of recommendations for what might reverse that performance and enable New Zealand to deliver for its citizens the sort of standard of living they should reasonably expect.     But on the basis of the Secretary’s latest speech, I wouldn’t be holding your breath.

Of course, one can’t expect any sort of fully-developed story in a few pages closing a workshop.  But if there is (a) a sense of urgency, and (b) a well-developed set of policy proposals being worked-up, that should be clear in a speech of this sort. Neither is there.

Makhouf recognises that our productivity performance leaves something to be desired, but how is this for minimising the issue?

We are middle of the OECD pack at best in the amount of income we derive per hour worked, and we have made little or no headway on lifting our productivity performance rankings over the past 15 years.

There are 35 OECD countries now, and only 13 had real GDP per hour worked less than New Zealand’s in 2015 (most recent comprehensive data).   And the only reason we are even near the middle of the OECD pack is because so many poorer countries have been allowed into the OECD.    Every single one of the 11 new members in recent decades was poorer, and less productive than us, when they joined.

When we joined the OECD in 1973, it was a club of 24 countries.  OECD data go back to 1970.  And in 1970, our real GDP per hour worked was similar to that in France and Germany.     These days, they have productivity 60 per cent higher than ours, and of those 24 countries only Portugal, Turkey, and Greece now have lower real GDP per hour worked than we do.   In 1970, Turkey had GDP per hour worked less than half ours, while on the latest estimates it is now almost equal to us.

And while it is certainly true that “we have made little or no headway on lifting our productivity performance rankings over the past 15 years”, the story is much worse than that, as even the OECD highlighted last week.    Here is their chart

OECD productivity

And this is mine, from a post a couple of weeks ago

douglas 3

In 47 years now there has never been a time when New Zealand has succeeded in narrowing the productivity gaps that have opened up between us and other advanced countries.  At best, we’ve gone sideways in some periods.

And if Makhouf understates the severity of the problem, he overstates any signs of progress

Our understanding of New Zealand’s productivity performance is improving, thanks to a wealth of information that has recently been released including as a result of the Productivity Commission’s report Achieving New Zealand’s Productivity Potential, the OECD’s New Zealand Country Study and Going for Growth, and the Treasury’s He Tirohanga Mokopuna.  (That last one is a cracking read, by the way.)

Really?   The Treasury report he refers to was their long-term fiscal report, and I’m genuinely puzzled as to how he thinks that (useful) report advances our understanding of the productivity underperformance.    The Productivity Commission piece, which I wrote about here, was an interesting effort, and did represent a step forward in some areas (including the treatment of immigration policy) but it has hardly galvanised the nation –  or even, as far as I can tell, official Wellington.  As for the OECD’s report, surely Makhlouf was just being diplomatic  –  the OECD chief economist was at the workshop –  rather than seriously suggesting that they have a compelling narrative to explain New Zealand’s underperformance and, thus, a solid model to use in proposing remedies?

Makhlouf goes on

Our challenge now is to keep building the momentum of progress and turning our growing understanding into action that lifts our productivity performance.

But where is the progress at all?   Where, specifically, is the evidence that Treasury –  or other government agencies –  are any closer to credible answers?

Makhlouf set out what might have been an interesting marker

As I mentioned, we have seen little improvement on where we rank among OECD countries for productivity, yet we have been told that we have world-leading settings.
This raises a few questions for me.  ….. Or could it in fact be that New Zealand’s world leading economic and policy settings aren’t so world-leading anymore?

I’m not sure who really thinks of New Zealand policies are being “world-leading” these days.  In some areas, perhaps they are.  In other areas, we score quite badly.  But I’d have thought a fair overall description would probably be ‘no worse than the typical OECD country’.

Sadly, Makhouf doesn’t really do much to develop his tantalising question.

‘World-leading’ is always evolving.  Looking back through history, Rome, China, India and the United Kingdom have all at times been world leading economies, just as the United States is today.  So while some things will continue to hold for productivity and incomes, we need to make sure we are not working towards something that used to be world-leading, but is no longer so.  It’s also likely that what’s world-leading will vary by country so it’s not a recipe that we can simply copy.

Surely all this confuses great power status –  not unrelated to economic strength typically  –  with world-leading (economic) policy settings?   After all, he could have noted that 100 years ago, New Zealand looked pretty world-leading –  not as a “great power” but as one of the very richest and most productive nations on earth.   Nor am I really quite sure how “what’s world-leading will vary by country” makes much sense, unless he is saying –  in which case I agree –  that in thinking about diagnosing New Zealand’s problems and offering remedies to policymakers we need to think hard about the specifics of New Zealand’s situation.  It isn’t clear that the OECD (at least) has really done that.

But it isn’t clear that Treasury is really doing so either.  Because Makhlouf devotes the rest of his remarks to

five factors that the Treasury believes always matter: skills, connections, markets, resources and rules.

Any micro-focused policy agency almost anywhere in world could trot out that list

Of skills

The Treasury believes that opportunities remain to lift skills and resilience in the workforce, and it’s important that those opportunities are pursued.

No doubt, but it doesn’t seem particularly persuasive that gaps here are big part of the 45 year story of underperformance, when the OECD adult skills data suggests New Zealand workers already have among the highest skills of any in the OECD.

Of connections

Connections matter, in particular people-to-people connections.  And as Asia continues to dominate economic activity, perhaps those types of connections – ie, relationships – matter more than ever.  Improving connections can help to improve the flow of people, capital, trade and ideas that contribute to productivity.  Strong people-to-people relationships build confidence and understanding and promote learning.  They help our businesses to identify capabilities that will help them improve their productivity and ultimately compete and succeed in both domestic and global markets.

I suspect this is some sort of code for “keep on having lots of immigration”, but it isn’t terribly specific.    And as a reminder, with rare exceptions, Asia isn’t the home to the richest or most productive economies.  But again, with hugely high (by international standards) rates of non-citizen immigration, did Makhlouf and Treasury have anything remotely specific in mind?

He gets a little more specific on “markets”

In the Treasury’s view we need to continue to lift the competitive intensity of the New Zealand economy.  The pressure of competition pushes firms to be more productive, for example by innovation to improve quality or cut costs.  We need to ensure our markets are as competitive as possible by reducing the barriers to entry, including for imports (whether in goods or services), or by regulating the price and quality of goods and services in markets where there is little or no competition, such as in our telecommunications and electricity markets.  And we need to maintain the effectiveness of competition laws and institutions.  If we want competitive markets and the productivity gains they bring, we have to ask ourselves: what are the regulatory barriers preventing competition and what can we do about them?  How bold do we want to be to invite competition?

It isn’t really my area, but if there is useful stuff to be done in this area how plausible is it that it can materially explain 45 years of relative economic decline?  Say what you like about competition in New Zealand now, but in almost all areas there is a great deal more than there used to be.

Then he moves onto natural and physical resources.  Here he includes housing.

Our natural and physical resources are next.  One of the most high profile issues we’re examining in New Zealand – housing – illustrates how these resources are a significant factor in productivity.  We are all aware of issues in house price growth in Auckland and the inefficiencies in our use of land which are proving to be a bottleneck in New Zealand’s growth and productivity.

I’m not sure there is really any evidence for this proposition.  If there is, in a New Zealand context, perhaps The Treasury could publish it.    Dreadful as our housing policies are, when the city that is worst affected by them has (a) had very rapid population growth, and (b) has a very small margin by which productivity exceeds that in the rest of country, it suggests that overseas studies –  on places like San Francisco and New York (which have had little population growth, and very high productivity margins) –  may not be of much direct relevance here.

Still on housing

the degree of its affordability or unaffordability is a product of our entire urban development chain and of multiple interacting areas of policy. We’re considering these issues holistically, as well as particularly how land owners capture the economic rents and potentially magnify the problems. We see the concept of competitive land markets as an important part of the way forward.

Surely if there is something there, it could have been written a great deal more simply?  And portentous words about “the concept of competitive land markets as an important part of the way forward” almost make a mockery of people priced out of home ownership right now.

In some areas, I’m not sure Makhlouf really knows what he is saying

At the moment, it can be argued that too much of our natural resource use is determined by incumbency rather than most efficient use.

Does inumbency here mean “the person who owns it”?   But, surely, land is our greatest natural resource.  Mostly, it is pretty freely tradable.    Anyone with a better, more profitable use, in mind can surely make an offer?  Or (but surely not) is the Secretary perhaps a bit worried about private land ownership?

Actually, despite what he said, he seemed to be mostly talking about water rights and pollution.  What he says on water sounds sensible

To use water as an example, the ‘first-in first-served’ approach to water allocation means it may not always be allocated to the highest value use, and the current system lacks sufficient incentives for use to move to a higher value one. The Freshwater Allocation Work Programme is considering options that could be more appropriate to ensure that we are getting the best use of our water resources.

And I’m sure there are some real issues around pollution too.  But when he says

Better rules around use and around pricing externalities such as pollution are critical to making best use of resources and are likely to be key to promoting significant diversification of the economy and contributing to an improvement in productivity.

I think he makes it sound all too easy.  For example, it is all very well to talk of water pollution arising from more intensive dairying, or indeed of the implications for carbon emissions, but without a great supporting analysis it sounds a lot like feel-good rhetoric to suggest that restricting such industries is likely to be significant in lifting overall productivity in the economy.  What channels, one wonders, does the Secretary have in mind?

His final category was rules

The making of rules and regulations – whether by central or local government or even by self-regulated occupational groups – has an impact on productivity.  All rule-makers help shape the environment in which investment, enterprise, and job creation is either promoted or limited.  Rule-makers in the public sphere have a double responsibility: to ensure effectiveness in public spending and decision-making, and to provide the best possible regulatory and policy settings.

Hard to disagree really.  But is this really the best the Secretary to the Treasury –  an agency with key responsibility for regulatory review policy – can do on the contribution of New Zealand regulation to productivity?       There isn’t even an attempt to draw some of his points together, and note that (for example) well-intentioned but flawed rules help explain the absence of a well-functioning market in urban and peripheral land.

Overall, there is no sense of urgency, and no hint of any fresh insights either.

Makhlouf ended his speech this way

We need to continue to test our assumptions about what does and doesn’t work, and to apply new things where they make sense.  I know there’s a lot of willpower and brain power here to ask questions, find solutions and take actions to raise New Zealand’s productivity.

Of course, it is elected politicians, not officials, who would get to “take actions to raise New Zealand’s productivity”.  Sadly, despite the approaching election, there is little sign among any of them –  or those competing to take their place –  of much will to change, or much interest in attempts at serious answers to decades of decline.

Should there be more urgency?  I’d have thought so.    There has been plenty of talk in the last few years of New Zealand and Australia relative economic performance.  Australia is our biggest trade and investment partner, and of course historically an outlet for New Zealanders pursuing the far higher incomes typically on offer there.       It is certainly true that the Australian labour market has been cyclically weak in recent years, even more so than ours.   But here is the latest update of labour productivity in the two countries (in NZ, using an average of the two GDP measures, and an adjustment to hours worked for the break in the series last June).   The chart is indexed to 2007q4, just prior to the recession, but remember that even then we were well behind Australia (incomes and productivity levels)

GDP phw NZ vs Aus June 17

As it happens, Makhlouf’s appointment as Secretary to the Treasury was announced on 28 June 2011.   We’ve had barely any productivity growth since then (none for the last five years).    That, of course, isn’t directly his fault, but one does have to ask whether The Treasury under his stewardship has even once put forward a compelling set of policy proposals to end even this multi-year drought, let alone to reverse the 45 years and more or relative decline.  On the basis of this latest speech, we shouldn’t be very hopeful of what they might have to offer a government formed later this year.

 

 

 

Answers from Switzerland?

A month or so ago, prompted by a Herald news article talking up a New Zealand Initiative study tour to Switzerland to learn “the secrets of their success”,  I pointed out that Switzerland wasn’t such an obvious place to look for lessons on lifting New Zealand’s continuing disappointing economic performance.  After all, since 1970 they were the only OECD country to have had slower productivity growth than New Zealand

switz 70 to 15

and although the average productivity level in Switzerland is still much higher than that in New Zealand, it is no longer among the very best in the OECD.   Denmark, Belgium, and the United States are among the countries doing much better than Switzerland, and even they don’t top the rankings.

A few days later it turned out that the author of the article, veteran journalist Fran O’Sullivan, was actually participating in the study tour, not just talking it up.  At the time, I noted that it would be interesting to hear, in due course, what she learned from Switzerland, while being a little sceptical as to how detached from a New Zealand Initiative perspective she would prove able to be.

In Saturday’s Herald, O’Sullivan devoted a substantial article to reporting back on what was learned on the tour (this time with all the appropriate disclosures, including her partial sponsorship from one of the Initiative’s member companies).   Much of the article is quotes from New Zealand Initiative people.  And the answer it seems, at least on O’Sullivan’s summary take, is in the headline: Education key to Swiss success.

Near the start she observes of her own past trips to Switzerland

Other times I have been to Switzerland, it has been straight to Geneva to the World Trade Organisation’s HQ for trade discussions, or to observe the World Economic Forum in Davos. Not to look at what underpins Switzerland’s own resounding economic success.

I’m still quite genuinely puzzled at where she –  or the Initiative –  get this idea of “resounding economic success”.  I’m sure there are many things to like about  Switzerland but –  despite a very strong starting point a few decades ago –  it just isn’t one of the great economic success stories of modern times.  Productivity growth has been underwhelming –  to say the least –  and although GDP per capita in Switzerland is higher than in, say, France or Germany, it is so mostly because the Swiss put in a lot of hours.  Average productivity is higher in France and Germany, while Switzerland is like New Zealand in that total bours worked per capita are very high in both countries.

I quite like the sound of the Swiss political system –  highly decentralised, lots of quite small, and competitive local authorities.  It is the antithesis of something like the Auckland “supercity” put in place a few years ago by our government.     But one has to wonder quite what economic gains it might have produced.    The New Zealand Initiative seems dead keen on the highly decentralised system

“Private and central bankers, economists and journalists, federal and local politicians alike – in fact everyone we talked to – agreed that this was the most crucial component to the Swiss success formula,” says NZ Initiative executive director Oliver Hartwich.

But when your country has had the weakest productivity growth in the OECD over 45 years, you have to wonder whether the alleged contribution to “economic success” is not mostly one of those myths that all countries have, that don’t necessarily line up that well with the evidence.  I’m sure the decentralised system is cherished, but in modern times it has seen (although not necessarily caused) Switzerland drifting backwards.

But the political system isn’t the thrust of O’Sullivan’s article.  Rather, the education and vocational training systems seem to be.  In fact, even Hartwich seems to agree

Concludes Hartwich: “The most important insight was the fact that a solid vocational apprenticeship is just as respected as a university degree (and sometimes leads to better salaries, too). New Zealand businesses should not only co-operate with institutions but lead the debate on the required reforms.”

And a couple of quotes to give you the flavour of the rest

It may seem ruthless to stream students at an early level into academic and vocational education training (VET) streams. But Switzerland does just that.

About 20 per cent go into the university stream and the rest into the upper secondary school vocational education training stream, where students combine school learning with skills developed in the workplace.

This system serves 70 to 80 per cent of Swiss young people, preparing them for careers ranging from high-tech jobs to health sector roles and traditional trades. Both white collar and blue collar roles are appreciated. There are about 230 vocational categories.

and

The upshot is that Switzerland enjoys virtually full employment, the youth unemployment rate is among the lowest in developed countries and the Swiss enjoy a very high standard of living. Those doing the VET stream are not locked out from university education, which they can do at a later stage.

….

Asked if they could import one feature of Switzerland to New Zealand, the consensus of the visiting business leaders was that it would be the vocational training system.

ASB chief executive Chapman says any growing economy relies on a pipeline of skilled and motivated workers for momentum, and “in that context I think there is a lot to learn from the Swiss”.

“The Swiss have an enviable record of high youth employment.

I don’t know anything specific about the Swiss vocational training programmes, so there may well be some specific aspects that New Zealand firms, or New Zealand governments, could learn from.     But as I reflected on O’Sullivan’s article, the story about education etc didn’t seem terribly convincing as an explanation of Swiss “economic success”.

Overall employment rates in New Zealand and Switzerland are very similar (on OECD data 66.2 per cent in both countries last year).  But on youth employment, Switzerland does appear to have had a consistently higher employment rate.  Among those aged 15 to 24,  62 per cent of Swiss were employed last year, and 54 per cent of New Zealanders.

Employment among young people is a bit of an ambiguous indicator.  After all, if young people are in full-time study (school or tertiary) they often won’t be in employment at all.  Youth employment rates were probably higher in both countries 100 years ago.

But what about youth unemployment: people who want a job, are looking for a job, but can’t find a job?   Here, Switzerland seems unambiguously to do better than New Zealand.

U rates Switz and NZ

And what are some of the things that affects the ability of young people to get into work?  Minimum wage laws are likely to be one of them.  I recall the New Zealand Initiative’s Eric Crampton, when he was at Canterbury University, making some very useful contributions  (eg here) to the debate about the impact of the much more stringent minimum wage provisions, especially as they affect young people, that were put in place here about 10 years ago.

Readers may recall that, relatively low as New Zealand wages are, our minimum wage relative to median wages –  the sort of metric relevant when thinking about whether minimum wage provisions exclude some people from employment –  are very high by OECD standards (fourth highest in fact).

And what about Switzerland?   Well, in Switzerland there is no minimum wage law at all.   And not that long ago, Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected an attempt to establish one.     Perhaps in the course of the Initiative’s study tour no one thought to ask the question about minimum wages.  But whatever the reason, it looks as though it could be a rather important omission.  It isn’t the really skilled young people who typically have difficulty getting jobs, but the less skilled and more troubled ones.  Our systems works against them getting established in the labour force, while the Swiss one seems not to.   As the ASB chief executive put it:

“You can’t underestimate the power this has on the optimism and confidence of their youth as they look to their own future.”

But I was also a little puzzled about the story that seemed to downplay the role of universities in Switzerland.  I’m as willing as next person (including New Zealand Initiative members) to think that perhaps New Zealand went through a phase where too many people went to university.   And a good builder or plumber will certainly earn more than many of the occupations our more-marginal university students end up in.

But what did the data show?  As it happens, the OECD Economic Survey on New Zealand came out on Thursday, and they had a whole chapter on the labour market, skills etc.   So I flicked through it looking for relevant charts.  Like this one.

skills young

Switzerland is “CHE”.   Relative to New Zealand –  and to the OECD as a whole –  Swiss young workers (25 to 34 year olds) now have a far higher rate of completed tertiary qualifications than New Zealand ones do.

And there was also this chart

skills swiss

Whether for younger people or older ones, Switzerland is ahead of New Zealand, particularly in the proportions with masters or doctorates.

And yet

Tertiary Education Commissioner Sir Christopher Mace says, “to be highly qualified technically rather than academically was totally acceptable in Switzerland.”

No doubt that is true –  or rather I have no reason to doubt it.  But a huge proportion of Swiss young people are getting strong academic qualifications.

Oh, and the OECD also makes much in their reports of the adult skills data I’ve written about here previously. Switzerland didn’t participate in that survey, but New Zealand workers came up with some of the very highest skills (notably problem-solving skills) of any of the many countries that did participate.

Still flicking through the OECD chapter, I found another interesting chart on employment.  Ideally it would be a chart of all sole parents, not just mothers, but it was part of another chart focused on maternal employment.

Swiss sole parents

Switzerland is at the far right end of the chart.

Which is by way of leading into another difference between Switzerland and New Zealand –  the overall size of government is a bit smaller there.  Here is the OECD data on current government receipts (mostly taxes) as a per cent of GDP.

govt size nz and swiss

The Swiss tax take is smaller than ours, as a share of GDP, but (a) the gap seems to have been closing, and (b) at least as much of that is coming from the Swiss raising average taxes as from us lowering them.   Again, if one is concerned about productivity, it isn’t obvious that the Swiss experience has a great deal that is positive to teach us, even if the reasons for their weak productivity growth might well be different from the reasons for our own.

The Swiss track record with weak productivity growth isn’t something new that no one had noticed before  –  the OECD, for example, has been offering thoughts on it for some time (eg here).  So it is still a bit of a mystery why the New Zealand Initiative is touting Switzerland as a success story to emulate, or why a senior journalist is channelling those lines.   Perhaps it would have offended New Zealand business leaders’ sense of amour propre to have gone further east, but if there are many lesssons to be learned for us in Europe about lifting overall economic performance, it seems more likely they might be found in countries like Slovakia or Slovenia, Estonia or Latvia (all now fellow members of the OECD) where productivity is fast catching up (in some cases already has) average levels in New Zealand –  and that in countries that for the whole of modern New Zealand history (ie since say 1840) have been much much poorer and less productive than New Zealand.

Travel generally broadens the mind, and almost any country can probably offers some experiences (good and bad) that visitors could learn from.  I’ve no doubt Switzerland does too (eg about minimum wages and company tax rates perhaps) .    But Switzerland’s overall economic growth performance has been poor for decades, and that even with the advantages that come from being a relatively-small government place in the heart of one of the most prosperous places on the planet (northern Europe).  It seems unlikely there is very much to learn from them, at least in a positive sense, about how to markedly lift the performance of another struggling country almost as far from anywhere (and from suppliers, markets, clusters of knowledge)  as it is possible to be.

One could wonder whether this group of leading business people, (having gone off to learn from Switzerland, where they would have found a system with no minimum wages and much lower company tax rates, but nonetheless want to tell a story about training and education as the secrets of what they see as Swiss success) are not perhaps preparing against the chance of a change of government later in the year.   All that talk in the article would, no doubt, have seemed like music to Grant Robertson’s ears.  Perhaps not, but I’m struggling to formulate a better hypothesis.   Because the data don’t really seem to fit their story.

 

 

 

Rebalancing: not so much

Rebalancing the economy was a big theme when the current government came to office.

In a brief post on Friday afternoon, I looked back to Bill English’s 2009 Budget speech, shortly after the current government had taken office, and compared his complaints then about the weak export performance in recent years, with the record over the term of the current government.

Of course, exports weren’t the only indicator the then Minister made quite a bit of in his early speeches. I found three such speeches, the 2009 Budget speech, a speech in October 2009 to the Institute of Chartered Accountants (the link to which was working on Friday but not this morning), and the 2010 Budget speech.

There was also a concern about productivity.  In the 2009 Budget

Further, New Zealand’s productivity performance has been poor over the past decade. Ultimately, better productivity growth is the only way to create jobs and sustain high living standards.

And in the NZICA speech

“since 2003, our productivity has sunk to a 25-year low”

and the 2010 Budget referred to

“negative productivity growth between 2000 and 2009”

And there was concern about a lagging tradables sector.  In the 2009 Budget

The common elements to each of these imbalances are excessive growth of the domestic and consumption sectors of the economy. Meanwhile there has been insufficient growth and investment in those parts of the economy that either export or compete with foreign producers.

To NZICA a few months later

…the tradables sector –  that’s exporters or industries competing with imports –  has actually been in recession for five years, contracting by about 10 per cent in that time.

Even more staggering, there have been almost no net jobs created in the tradeables side of the economy for the past 10 years.  By contrast, the non-tradeables sector –  domestic industries not competing with exports, including the Government –  has grown by 15 per cent in the past five years.

And in the 2010 Budget

By contrast, output from exporters and import-competing industries had been in decline since 2005.  These include sectors such as agriculture, horticulture, mining and resources, forestry, fishing, food manufacturing and tourism, all areas where New Zealand should be benefiting from its natural advantages.

And, of course, there was a lot about the shift from fiscal surpluses to fiscal deficits, and about the large current account deficits in the years immediately prior to the recession.

How then have things gone under the watch of the current government?

Before bombarding you with numbers and charts, I would stress that while most of these variables are influenced by government policy choices few are under the direct control of governments, almost all government policies work with a lag, many comparisons also ideally need to take account of what is going on elsewhere in the world, and so on.   So while I will show various comparisons of how some of these economic indicators have done under the National government in the 1990s, the Labour-led government from 1999 to 2008, and the National-led government since then, using averages over the specific terms in office, no one is going to seriously claim that, say, Helen Clark or John  Key coming to office in late 1999 or late 2008 materially altered economic performance in the subsequent quarter or two.   The recession of 2008/09 would have happened, and been more or less as severe as it was, whenever in 2008 or 2009 a New Zealand election had been held.  Fortunately, all three governments held office for prolonged periods, and the use of annual average growth rates also makes comparative growth rates at least a starting point for an informed comparison of the various governments.   Events, good and ill, outside government control all complicate the matter.  To take the current government’s terms as an example, earthquakes were a severe adverse shock, and on the other hand the terms of trade have averaged higher than for many decades.  Neither was, in the slightest, something governments controlled.

What about exports?  Here I’m using annual totals (so the first number is the average growth rate in total per capita annual export volumes from the year to December 1990 to the year to December 1999).

Export volumes (per capita) – annual average growth rate (%)
Bolger-Shipley government term 4.7
Clark government term 2.1
Key-English government term 1.5
2007q4 to now 1.1

I’d probably focus most on the final line –  the growth rate since just before the recession –  even though it doesn’t cleanly line up with one government or the other.

What about the relative performance of the tradables and non-tradables sector.  I’ve used this indicator a lot, but, as I’ve noted previously, the then Minister had been quite keen on it.    This was more or less the chart the Minister would have had in mind in mid 2009 (there have been subsequent data revisions, but they don’t affect the story much).

t and nt to dec 08

The dip in the blue line right at the end was the recession, but tradables sector output appeared to have been stagnating for some years.

And here is how the same chart appears now.

t and nt to dec 16

If you were worried about this indicator in mid 2009 (and not everyone was), things don’t look any better now (this is particularly apparent in the per capita version of this chart here ).

Here are the average annual per capita growth rates for the tradables and non-tradables GDP components.

Tradables Non-tradables
Annual average per capita growth rate
Bolger-Shipley 2.3 1.7
Clark -0.1 2.5
Key-English 1.4 1.1
2007q4 to now -0.6 0.9

An impartial observer would suggest not much change under the current government.  Tradables output appears to have grown faster, but that appears to be only because the government changed at the very bottom of the recession.     Date the comparison from just prior to the recession, and performance on this indicator –  which new Minister of Finance Bill English seemed to quite like –  hasn’t been particularly encouraging.In those quotes I cited earlier, there was reference to employment growth in the tradables and non-tradables sector.  There is no easy way I’m aware of to make that calculation, in a way that lines up with the split in the GDP numbers.  I recall being involved in some discussions at the time about a possible tradables vs non-tradables employment indicator, but can’t now shed any further light.What about productivity?I’m not sure where the Minister got his numbers in 2009 supporting the claim that productivity growth had been negative in the previous few years.  It may have been SNZ’s multi-factor productivity indicator (for the “measured sector”.MFP to 16 MFP measures are quite cyclical –  if plant lies idle in a recession measured MFP will fall –  but unfortunately the latest observations are only around the same levels reached a decade ago.  There was no MFP growth late in the previous boom.  There has been none since.

Labour productivity measures are more widely cited.  I tend to use (and do so here) GDP per hour worked calculated by averaging the two real GDP measures and dividing them by HLFS hours worked.  Treasury uses a production GDP based measure.  It doesn’t materially affect these comparisons (if anything, my measure is slightly more favourable over the last eight years).It would be remiss of me not to remind readers that global productivity growth has also been weak over the last decade, but as I’ve illustrated in various posts, New Zealand has continued do worse than the typical advanced country average over recent years, and our sharp productivity slowdown really seems to date from around 2012.Of course, there is another side of the picture.  There is no doubt credit due for the effort that has gone in to close the fiscal deficit.  In the course of that period, the government accounts have been buffeted, on the one hand by the impact of the earthquakes, and on the other by the record high average terms of trade New Zealand has been enjoying.Interestingly, for those who do want to emphasise the role of fiscal policy in exacerbating or easing pressure on the real exchange rate, here is a chart of government consumption spending (on actual goods and services, not just cash transfers) as a share of GDP.Govt C

Real GDP per hour worked
Annual average growth rate
Bolger-Shipley 1.1
Clark 1.3
Key-English 0.6
2007q4 to now 0.5

It is a certainly a smaller share of the economy than it was during the recession –  that peak was a combination of rising government spending and the way that relatively stable government spending tends to rise as a share of GDP in every recession (you can see it even in the early 1990s).   As of now, government consumption spending as a share of GDP is still almost two full percentage points higher than the share it averaged –  under two different governments – from the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s.   Whatever the merits of such spending, it won’t have facilitated any sort of rebalancing of the economy.

We now expect New Zealand governments to run balanced budgets, or even surpluses.  All three governments since 1990 have.  That is no small achievement, but there isn’t much to differentiate one government from the others.

What about the current account deficit?    It certainly is smaller than we had experienced in the years running up to the recession –  but those years look exceptional.

CAD

In fact, the current account deficit at present (2.7 per cent of GDP) isn’t much different from the average over the period 1988 to 2004 (3.1 per cent).   And that despite two things largely outside New Zealand’s control:

  • the interest rate on our quite large accumulated stock of foreign debt is much lower than it was (most of the debt is hedged back to NZD, and New Zealand short-term interest rates in the last four years of the boom averaged 6 per cent or more (the OCR peaked at 8.25 per cent).  The OCR now is 1.75 per cent.    The gap is smaller at longer maturities, but there was a quite unexpected windfall in the reduction in interest rates,
  • the very high average level of the terms of trade (almost 10 per cent higher in the last three years than in the last years of the previous boom).

Another way of expressing the current account balance is the difference between savings and investment.    Government investment as a share of GDP is now much as it was during the pre-recession boom years.  Other investment –  despite all the construction activiity –  is not.

investment to dec 16

Despite all the population growth the non-government sector as a whole appears not to have been finding the scale of remunerative investment opportunities that they were voluntarily undertaking –  wisely or not –  in the pre-recession period.   Not quite the sort of rebalancing that the 2009 Minister of Finance appeared to have in mind.

Perhaps the subdued investment isn’t too surprising given that, on Treasury’s estimates, New Zealand has had a negative output gap –  unemployed excess resources –  for getting on for 10 years now.

And what of saving?  We don’t have a quarterly national savings series, but the other side of savings is spending –  consumption.     An earlier chart showed that government consumption was still running higher than we’d seen previously.   Here is total consumption as a share of GDP.

total consumption

The latest observation is just a little below the average of the history of the series (consistent with the annual national saving rate data, which is just slightly above the average of the history of the series).

What to make of all this?   New Zealand’s productivity performance has been pretty poor, as has the overall performance of its tradable sector.  Consistent with the continuing excess capacity, and perhaps with the weak productivity performance, non-housing private investment has remained pretty subdued, and that is  reflected in the smaller current account deficit than we’d seen for some time.   Economic outcomes are never fully the result of government choices.  But as the current incumbents approach the voters a few months from now, on the sorts of indicators they incumbents were citing, with legitiimate concern, when they came to office, the story doesn’t look like a particularly favourable one, of corners turned, new and better trajectories set out on.   And that without even mentioning house prices.

A tale of two economies

I’ve never known much about Romania.  There was Olivia Manning’s Balkan TrilogyRichard Wurmbrand was one of the Christian heroes of my youth, and there were the bleak last years of Ceaucescu culminating in a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989.  But that was about it. I had occasionally used it as an example of a rare country that had managed less growth in per capita income than New Zealand over the 20th century.   The rule of law, private property, strong institutions and freedom have quite a lot to be said for them.

And then the other day, an eastern European immigrant to New Zealand was commenting here.  I was curious why an east European had chosen New Zealand, as several of the eastern European economies seemed to have pretty good prospects, perhaps even better than those of New Zealand.  I had in mind especially the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Slovakia (each now with GDP per hour worked very similar to that in New Zealand).  In our subsequent exchange, it turned out that he was Romanian.

And that prompted me to go and check out some data on Romania.  It was a pretty sobering story, for a New Zealander.

Romania had its ups and downs in the 20th century.   Just prior to World War One (when we were one of handful of richest countries in the world) Romania was doing well.   GDP per capita is estimated to have been 75 per cent of that of, say, Norway.   They did really badly for the following 30 years, and then –  on these measures –  quite well economically for the first few communist decades (large scale industrialisation etc).  As with many of the eastern bloc countries, things worsened again for them in the 1980s. Older readers may remember accounts of the “austerity policy” in which everything –  particularly citizen living standards –  was subordinated to repaying the government’s foreign debt.

Things actually got quite a lot worse for Romania (at least in bottom line economic numbers, even if they were free), as for many of the former eastern bloc countries, in the years immediately after end of communist rule (so many distortions to unwind, so many governance problems etc).  In Romania’s case things finally bottomed out –  at least relative to New Zealand – in 2000.

Absolute levels comparisons between Romania and New Zealand are a bit fraught.  Romania isn’t in the OECD, and while they are in the EU we aren’t.  Here are ratios of Romania’s GDP per capita, in purchasing power parity terms, relative to New Zealand since 1990 from (a) the IMF World Economic Outlook database, and (b) the Conference Board Total Economy database.

Romania 2

Those of you who want to be relatively more upbeat on the New Zealand story might choose to emphasise the Conference Board number, and to note that – even after ending decades of communism – on that measure Romania now isn’t much higher relative to New Zealand than it was in 1990.  Personally from all the accounts I’ve seen, I’m more than a little sceptical that Romania’s real living standards in 1990 were in fact half those of New Zealand.   Things are better measured now.

But here is the Conference Board’s real GDP per hour worked series (Romania relative to New Zealand).  The Romanian data only go back to 1995, and these days Romanian statistics are part of Eurostat (ie they won’t be perfect, but I’m not sure there is more reason to doubt statistics for them than for us).

romania 3

In absolute terms it isn’t such a stunning achievement –  since New Zealand productivity growth has lagged that of most other advanced countries over this period –  but………..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 we do maintain a big lead in GDP per capita?  Simply by having more people work more hours.  Here is hours worked per capita (ie per man, woman, and child of all ages).

romania 4

The next time you hear Steven Joyce, or some other minister or business cheerleader, boast that we have more people working than most countries, do try to remember that labour is a cost (to individuals, who would often do other stuff instead if they could) and that the Stakhanovite cult –  extolling the virtues of tireless labour –  was a feature of the communist system, not ours.

Of course, if people do want to work and can’t, then there is a problem.  We measure that through the unemployment statistics.  Romania’s unemployment rate is a bit higher than New Zealand, but at 5.5 per cent the difference is pretty small.  We still do a lot things better than Romania:  we score top of the Transparency International rankings, while Romania is 57th.  We top the World Bank’s ease of doing business index, and they are 36th (not bad at all given where they came from, but a long way off us).   But look at the bottom line growth and productivity performances.

Of course, sometimes what you find in countries with a run of impressive-looking fast growth is that:

  • it is built on big government deficits, or
  • big ill-founded private credit booms, reflected in
  • big current account deficits, and
  • appreciating real exchange rates, with an economy increasingly skewed towards construction and domestic demand.

Our government finances are in better shape than theirs.  The Romanian government (on IMF numbers) has a deficit of about 2 per cent of GDP, while we have a small surplus.  Gross government debt in New Zealand is about 30 per cent of GDP, and in Romania it is about 40 per cent.  But even that is pretty low by advanced country standards.   And for my friends who like to emphasise size of government, (still on IMF numbers) both revenue and expenditure as a share of GDP are a bit smaller in Romania than in New Zealand.

Romanian private credit was very rapid, and looked rather risky, in the years leading up to 2008.  But not now.  There is a chart at the link, and overall domestic credit growth has been running at under 5 per cent per annum for the last few years.

Reflecting the pre-crisis boom in private credit, the Romanian current account deficit widened sharply.    But these days, deficits in Romania are similar to the modest ones we currently have in New Zealand.

romania 5

Romanian investment has fallen back from what they experienced in the credit boom period.  Then again, it is still higher, as a share of GDP, than that in New Zealand.

romania 6

In fact, they had exactly the sort of worrying real exchange rate appreciation one might have expected in the credit-boom years.

romania 7

But after that credit boom ended, the real exchange rate fell back.

Perhaps consistent with that, firms based in Romania seem to have been doing rather well in international markets.  Exports look as though they were squeezed out during the credit boom, but the subsequent recovery and trend growth is pretty impressive.  For a country with a population of about 20 million people, it is a reasonably high foreign trade share (this is exports, but imports are equally important).  Australia, for example, is around 20 per cent of GDP.

romania 8(You will recall that New Zealand has been going backwards on this metric.)

And there was one other interesting comparison.

romania 9

Since 1990, Romania’s population has fallen by 16 per cent, and ours has risen by 40 per cent.   There are several differences.  As I showed a few weeks ago, New Zealand’s total fertility rate over recent decades has been averaging below replacement.  Romania’s has been materially lower still, currently around 1.4.   And both countries have had material outflows of their own citizens: we had a net outflow of New Zealand citizens of around half a million people since 1990.    Romania has also had big outflows but (as far as I can tell) smaller cumulatively than those from New Zealand (there is a reference here to about 2.3 million Romanians living abroad long-term).

But, of course, the other difference is non-citizen immigration.  We’ve for a long time aimed to grant residence approvals equal to around 1 per cent of the population each year.  Since 1990, those policies have given us a net inflow of around one million non-citizens.

The OECD’s International Migration Outlook recorded in 2015 that

Romania sets annual quotas for work authorisations to be issued, although historically demand has been lower than the quotas.  For both 2014 and 2015, the quotas were set at 5500, including 900 intra-corporate transfers and 900 highly-skilled migrants.

In a country of 20 million people.   Not necessarily a policy I’d recommend, but……

Subdued population growth (well, falling population actually) doesn’t seem to have been inconsistent with a pretty impressive period of productivity growth, export growth, strong investment etc etc, all in a country still with its share of governance and regulatory problems.  And that investment isn’t largely having to keep up with a rapidly rising population, it is presumably responding the incentives and opportunities firms are finding).  Perhaps the Romanians, in aggregate and in some sense, wish their population wasn’t falling –  there is still anguishing about the outflow of skilled people – but probably their best hope of reversing that (perhaps slim given the low birth rate) is to keep right on with what they’ve been doing for the last 10 years.  In time, perhaps many of the diaspora might even return –  as they started to in Ireland after they finally got their act together.

30 years ago, Bob Jones toured the country lamenting that the New Zealand economy had come to resemble a Polish shipyard, a byword for inefficiency and industrial disruption.  I do hope in 30 years time there aren’t reforming Romanian politicians campaigning, warning their fellow citizens to avoid the decline and fall of New Zealand.  Yes, for now they are still poorer and, on average, less productive than we are. But those gaps have started closing fast, and the foundations of the growth don’t look that bad at all.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention Romania’s 16 per cent company tax rate.  Not sure (whether as Baptist or economist) I quite approve of the separate regime for nightclubs and gambling operations.

(On another topic, I discovered that my name was being bandied around in Parliament’s question time the other day   –  question 2 here. Winston Peters was quoting me, and Steven Joyce was batting him away.  All good fun no doubt.     But I did notice this comment from the Minister “I appreciate that the member has been talking to Mr Reddell a bit”.  In fact, I have never met Mr Peters, I have never talked to him, never emailed him or had any contact with him whatsoever.  If he or his office appear to read my stuff at times well, of course, I welcome that, as I welcome any readers.   Specific policy proposals, that might actually make a difference, would be even more welcome.)

 

 

 

The little engine that could…and other fairy tales

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

It was almost to the top.

“I——-think”

It was at the top.

“I ———can.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2011 to 2016 growth in real gdp phw

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

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

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

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

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

But

IMF scatter plot

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

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

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

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

Emissions again

After my post the other day, I pricked up my ears when I heard on the radio this morning that new data on greenhouse gas emissions had been released, and at the same time heard various industry lobby groups calling for more government support (money or regulation”) for this, that or the other mitigating measure.  It is the costs of meeting the New Zealand government’s emissions reduction target that worries me.

(As it happens, I was emitting carbon at the time, driving home from the supermarket in a petrol-fuelled car.  But I had already walked up the (rather steep) hill carrying several kilos of groceries home earlier in the morning.)

Today’s release consists primarily of a 542 page report from the Ministry for the Environment (MfE).  But they also had a convenient eight page summary document.

In my post the other day, I included this chart of GDP per capita for OECD countries, in the most recent year for which there is data, 2014.

emissions per GDP

New Zealand was second only to Estonia in the level of emissions per unit of GDP.

I was interested to see that MfE made reference to this measure in their snapshot report.  Under the heading “New Zealand’s economy is growing faster than our emissions”, they included this chart.

MFE emissions

That looks quite good on first glance.

But how, I wondered, did New Zealand compare to other OECD countries?  You’ll notice that on that chart emissions per unit of GDP fell in 2015.  Since the OECD databases aren’t yet updated for 2015, and we don’t know what happened to other countries in 2015, the following charts use the data only for 1990 to 2014.    (MfE also report a rebasing of the entire series, slightly lowering New Zealand’s estimated emissions over the whole 25 year period.  But relative to the charts below this rebasing would worsen  New Zealand’s relative performance, since the revision downwards for 1990 was a little greater than the revision downwards for the more recent years.)

Here is emissions per unit of GDP for those OECD countries (all but one) for which there is 1990 data.

emissions 1990

In 1990 we were only sixth highest in the OECD.   And by 2014 we were second highest.  I guess the Ministry for the Environment (and their Minister) weren’t too keen on highlighting that point.

Here is the percentage changes in emissions per unit of GDP to 2014 (for a small number of countries only 2013 data is available).  MfE highlighted that New Zealand’s emissions fell by 35.9 per cent from 1990 to 2015.

change in emissions

Only 10 OECD countries had smaller reductions in emissions per unit of GDP than New Zealand over this period.  Of them, one might reasonably think that severe economic stresses (falls in GDP) in recent years might help explain Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal.  And as Japan’s emissions rose a lot in 2011,  the year of the earthquake/tsunami, the enforced shift away from nuclear power at the time probably explains what is going on there.

Of the five countries that were to the right of New Zealand in 1990, four had among the largest percentage reductions among OECD countries.  Even Australia’s reduction was around the median.  It does leave New Zealand rather standing out.

(Perhaps some of this is covered in more depth the 542 page report.  I went through the Executive Summary and the table of contents and couldn’t see any likely references, but I may have missed them.)

In the snapshot document, straight after the emissions per unit of GDP chart, MfE does have a brief section on

Some of the challenges New Zealand faces when reducing emissions include:

  • a growing population
  • almost half our emissions are from agriculture where there are fewer economically viable options currently available to reduce emissions
  • an electricity sector that is already 80.8 per cent renewable (meaning that we have fewer ‘easy wins’ available to us compared to other countries who can more easily make significant emissions reductions  by switching to renewable sources of electricity).

I was very pleasantly surprised to find the “growing population” as the first item on the list (it isn’t particularly relevant to emissions per unit of GDP, but is very relevant to total emissions –  the variable in terms of which our government’s target is expressed).

It is hard to disagree with them  But it does leave one wondering what advice or research/analysis they have done, and provided to Ministers –  including when the target was being adopted –  about the implications of New Zealand’s immigration policy.  Our non-citizen immigration policy pushes up the population by almost 1 per cent per annum (against an, admittedly unrealistic, benchmark of zero inward migration of non-citizens).  Have they analysed the potential costs and benefits from lowering the non-citizen immigration target relative to other possible abatement (or compensation) mechanisms?  Perhaps there is credible modelling that suggests the overall abatement costs to New Zealanders would be lower through other plausible mechanisms.  But given that population increases appear first, and without further commentary, on their lists of “challenges” it would be good to know if they have done the work.

On reflection, I think I will lodge an Official Information Act request to find out.

(And it still leave me mystified why, when even the government’s own Ministry for the Environment is citing continuing population increases as a constraint on meeting the emissions reduction target, the Green Party continues to support large non-citizen migration inflows.  Migration might only transfer people from one country to another but given (a) the issues around agriculture, and (b) the reasonable notion that New Zealand members of Parliament should be looking out first for the interests of New Zealanders, it shouldn’t be a consideration they can simply ignore in thinking about New Zealand’s ability (and at what cost) to meet the emissions reduction target.)