National on the economy

On Monday the National Party released their “The Economy” discussion document, the latest in a series of such documents they’ve published in recent months as they move towards setting policy for next year’s election.    The documents actively invite feedback, and if one should be sceptical of crowd-sourcing policy programmes mostly it seems like a worthwhile initiative.

A few weeks ago I was quite critical after Simon Bridges’s conference speech about the apparent lack of recognition of the structural failings of the New Zealand economy, let alone of any hint of a serious strategy that might reverse the decades of underperformance.

But, for all the almost ritualised mentions in Simon Bridges’s speech of the importance of a strong economy (even the Prime Minister mouths those sorts of line from time to time), there was nothing –  not a word –  to suggest that he recognises that the biggest obstacle to higher material living standards (whether in the form of cancer care or other public or private goods and services) is the woeful productivity record that successive governments –  led only by National and Labour –  have presided over.    There is plenty of talk about cyclical issues, but nothing about the structural failures, and nothing about what National might do that would conceivably make a real difference in reversing that performance.

Sure, it wasn’t primarily a speech about economics, but there has been nothing from Bridges or his colleagues elsewhere, and no hint of a recognition here, that much-improved productivity performance is the only sustainable path to much better material living standards.  And not a hint of a recognition that these failures were already well apparent in the government in which he served (latterly as Minister of Economic Development)

I went on to note that National appeared to be glossing over the fairly woeful overseas trade performance: exports and imports have been shrinking as a share of GDP.

I’m much less critical of the discussion document.   This line appeared on the first page, the leader’s own statement

New Zealanders’ productivity and income levels have fallen behind countries we once had similar income levels to, like Australia, the United States and leading European economies.

And from Paul Goldsmith’s opening

Improving productivity remains New Zealand’s most important economic challenge and the ideas discussed in this paper provide ways to meet that challenge, with the goal of raising incomes for all New Zealanders.

National understands that significantly lifting productivity is the only way to materially improve New Zealanders’ living standards. Increasing productivity means we can produce and sell more of what the world wants, at better prices, using fewer resources.

Good stuff.  And he goes on

New Zealanders’ living standards will not improve by simply redistributing what we
already have. Instead, we need to be absolutely focused on lifting New Zealand’s relatively weak productivity levels.

and

New Zealand’s core economic challenge is to lift our relatively weak productivity. To do that, our economy needs to become more internationally competitive. The world does not owe us a living. We are a small, isolated country far from global markets, which creates both opportunities and challenges.

and

The only way to materially improve the living standards of New Zealanders over time is to become more productive. Higher productivity means more in the back pockets of New Zealand families. New Zealand’s productivity is a more productive and competitive economy that lifts household incomes approximately 30 per cent below the top half of the OECD and 25 per cent below Australia.  New Zealanders also work more hours a year than any countries in the top half of the OECD. In 2017, for example, workers in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway worked 300 hours less than New Zealanders.

Since the late 1990s, New Zealand’s productivity growth rates have been similar to that of the top half of the OECD. We need to be doing better to catch up and close the gap. That’s hard. It requires a relentless focus on productivity growth.

National is ambitious for New Zealanders and believes we should target higher rates of productivity in order to close the income gap with countries like Australia, the United States, Canada and leading European economies.

There was even talk of adopting a productivity growth target.

On foreign trade, we read this

New Zealand is a small country with a domestic market of only about five million people – so we depend on trade for generating greater prosperity. Trade supports over 600,000 jobs across our country, and is responsible for a higher standard of living and better quality of life for New Zealanders.

However, New Zealand has a relatively low exports-to-GDP ratio compared with other small, advanced economies. Lifting our exports will take further improvement but create new jobs and raise incomes.

So the rhetoric and some of the framing isn’t bad at all.    They could have made the same points even more brutally:

  • relative to the top tier of OECD countries (US, and leading half-dozen north European economies), productivity (real GDP per hour worked) has kept on slipping (in the last 25 years, productivity here has fallen from around 65 per cent to 60 per cent of those in the top-tier OECD countries while in, for example, Poland it has risen from around 30 per cent to around 55 per cent),
  • New Zealand has managed hardly any productivity growth at all over the last five years, and
  • not only are foreign trade shares (exports and imports) low for a country our size, but they’ve been shrinking.

But even if Simon Bridges in his introduction did note of the previous government “we didn’t everything right”, to have done so might have prompted too many hard questions about National’s own record.

What of the policy proposals and ideas?

I found a reasonable amount to like:

  • they haven’t fixed on a public debt target yet, but I liked the articulation of the flow fiscal goal (“Governments should aim for balanced budgets over time, so that surpluses in the good times offset the bad times”).  With little evidence of an overheating economy at present, that should have them arguing for a balanced budget now, not for surpluses,
  • I was pleasantly surprised that they remain committed to lifting the NZS eligibility age, and to introducing a somewhat more demanding residence requirement.    They should have gone further on both fronts (my thoughts on NZS here) –  said from the perspective of a household where my wife is 10 years younger than I am and still won’t be affected by National’s proposed change.  But we should be thankful for small mercies: on this issue, National has moved decisively on from the Key irresponsibility.
  • I like the idea they are toying with of adjusting for inflation the interest earnings and interest payments that are tax assessable/deductible.   Various people, including at times the Reserve Bank, have argued for this for years.  It is just and right to do so, but……there isn’t that much in the issue.
  • I like the mention of possibly using congestion pricing on some parts of the roading system.
  • I am encouraged that they are willing to think seriously about the possibility of lowering the company tax rate (although disquieted by talk of favouring small businesses through the tax system).  That said, given our imputation system, a lower company tax rate benefits foreign investors (we would generally benefit from more of such investment), and if they are serious about addressing this issue –  and productivity growth –  substantively then they need to think about options for lowering the taxation of capital income earned by New Zealanders as well.  Whether they have the political skills to manage the narrative around that sort of proposal is, at very least, an open question.
  • The talk –  not specific in this document –  of a proper overhaul of the RMA and serious liberalisation of the urban land market is encouraging.  The ability of the next generation to afford decent houses (and gardens etc –  the sort of place most New Zealanders seem to want) depends on it.
  • And I like the idea of a much tougher approach to new regulation, and some sort of commitment to reducing the overall volume of economic regulation.  On that count, I like the (adopted first in parts of Canada) idea of eliminating two old regulations for each new regulation (ie a shrinking cap on the volume of regulation itself).   There are risks around such an approach once it in turn becomes bureaucratised –  ministers and bureaucrats will game the system skilfully, so it would need serious leadership from the top, and sustained follow-through –  but for now the value is in the signal it sends.

And there is other stuff I like, often undoing bad calls by the current government (eg the ban on new oil and gas exploration and the planned labour reforms  – I found this note valuable on the latter).  There was even talk of possibly unilaterally lifting all remaining New Zealand tariffs, recognising that tariffs tax New Zealanders.

They were even surprisingly muted on immigration.  I thought this line from early in the document was quite cleverly drafted, with the focus on creating a climate in which New Zealanders no longer want to leave permanently.

New Zealand is also competing with the rest of the world for skills. If we aren’t internationally competitive our best and brightest leave for overseas and our living standards worsen relative to the rest of the world.

And if I disagree, quite firmly, with their paragraph on immigration itself  – after all, we have one of the highest levels of workforce skills among natives of any OECD country

Immigration can help to deliver a more skilled and willing workforce. National understands the benefits of sound immigration policy from an economic, social and cultural perspective. The skilled migrant levels should match industry needs and the administration of visas needs to be prompt and predictable. New Zealanders must be at the front of the queue for the jobs created by our growing and changing economy, but immigration will remain an important complement to that growth.

at least the “critical economic enabler” gung-ho rhetoric is gone, and this paragraph is a long way down the document.

Of course, there is other stuff I didn’t like.    Their section on regional development is about as devoid of a serious framework –  real exchange rate anyone? –  as anything from Shane Jones.  They still seem enamoured of big taxpayer subsidies to “glamour” industries (screen grants), and when they talk of privatisation it is never about efficiency or competition or accountability or things like that, but rather silly arguments about freeing up cash to spend on other things (when, as they know, the Budget is in surplus and the debt is low).   And they seem tantalised by the idea of more infrastructure spending without offering much assurance that the sort of schemes they might proceed with would be any better –  in economic return terms – than those of the previous National government.   Perhaps I’ve mentioned that there was next to no productivity growth economywide over the last five years or so?

But when I got to the end of the document, I guess my overriding reaction was a bit similar to my reflections on the reports of the 2025 Taskforce (the body set up by the previous National government to provide analysis and recommendations on closing the income and productivity growth gaps to Australia  –  by 2025, a date that mocks us now).  I had quite a lot of involvement in that process, and largely wrote the first report.  I also largely agreed with most of the recommendations the Taskforce themselves made –  very few of which were ever adopted.   And yet, as I reflected on the report in the months after it was released, I became increasingly convinced that, sensible as many/most of the recommendations were, they weren’t enough to make a decisive break in New Zealand’s economic and productivity performance.  Some important things were missing (although at the time I wasn’t really clear, even in my own mind, what they were).

Quite a few of things National is proposing look sensible. The general direction looks sensible.   The rhetoric is better than it was –  although, by itself, such rhetoric is cheap, and is the sort of thing most Oppositions for 25 years have eventually come round to saying.  But the scale of the policy response they are talking about is simply incommensurate to the scale of the problem (much of the policy mix they are suggesting is carrying on a broad approach they adopted in government, and productivity growth was very disappointing then).  For New Zealand average labour productivity to match that in top-tier OECD countries would require a 60 per cent lift from where we are.    That is simply huge.  Huge problems are rarely successfully answered with small changes (even a succession of them).

And so my challenge to National is along the lines of that the rhetoric is great, and I hope it reflects a shared sense that New Zealand’s long-term economic performance really is deeply disappointing, and has not sustainably improved –  relative to other advanced countries –  for any prolonged period for many decades now.  As they say, that has real implications for us, our children and our grandchildren, for the material living standards –  and public and private services –  we can achieve for the population as a whole.

But if you are serious, and you really mean what you say – all those good quotes I posted earlier –  you need to keep thinking harder, digging deeply, consulting broadly and testing and evaluating the proposals and analysis put to you.   Great ambitions need to be matched by excellent analysis, courageous policy, and skilful management of the political challenges.   Perhaps for many in the National caucus, winning the next election is all that matter, but I’d urge the party, and its members, not to focus on the small ambitions, but on the really big challenge that, successfully confronted, would so much transform New Zealand for the better, for almost all New Zealanders.

A good time to invest?

A day or two ago I started reading a new book on, among other things, the decline in trust in “experts” that is said to increasingly pervade Western societies.  I’ve written previously about my scepticism that supposed experts are people we should repose much trust in, on things other than the most narrowly technical matters.  I want an expert carrying any surgery I or my family need and when, for example, it comes to house renovations

A good architect, and capable expert builders and other tradespeople, can together enable an outcome that I couldn’t deliver myself. Most of us need, and value, expert advice, and expert execution, but the decision to renovate the house, and how far to go, is the customer’s. It is about choices and preferences on the one hand, and advice from experts who actually usually know what they are doing on the other.

It isn’t clear to me that there are very many areas of public policy where arrangements should be much different.

And I often wonder just how much real expertise –  on matters beyond the most narrowly techical – can be found in most of the public sector agencies in which some encourage us to place our trust.   The Governor of the Reserve Bank is one of those figures in whom the law places a great deal of power.   Doubts about whether that is a wise choice, at least about the incumbent, were given further fuel by his performance on TVNZ’s Q&A last night.

I don’t have the time today to unpick it all, including his continued claim that fiscal policy is adding to demand/activity, when The Treasury’s fiscal impulse measure suggests it isn’t (all that has happend in the Budget update numbers is that fiscal policy is now estimated to have roughly a zero effect on demand over the next few years, rather than the slight drag previously projected).  Orr seems to be champing at the bit to have the government spend more –  especially capital spending – but he was careful and never quite said so last night.

Where he is much less careful is around investment more generally.    Last night he followed up from his claim at last week’s press conference that the country was in a great condition, with the renewed suggestion that now was a wonderful time to invest, that businesses need to “keep going” on investing, and that it was hard to be nervous about investing with such low risk-free interest rates and (so he asserted) such low hurdle rates of return.  (Doesn’t he follow the world news?)    This wasn’t just so in New Zealand apparently: there were global “infrastructure deficits” and generational opportunities.  Closer to home his extraordinary assertion was the New Zealand had only “quality problems” –  the bizarre line John Key used to use about Auckland’s housing and transport problems.

You really have to wonder what insight the Governor thinks he is blessed with that eludes people in the private sector and in government, here and abroad.   It isn’t as if he offers us a detailed piece of argumentation and analysis in support of his story.  It seems to be mostly just handwaving and wishful thinking.   Not exactly a sound basis for policy, or for encouraging us to put any trust in him.

In writing about the MPS last week, I reproduced one of the Bank’s own charts about investment.

bus investment RB

Business investment –  in blue –  has been fairly weak and (if anything) weakening further.  It is not just some sort for post-election blues, businesses not liking having Labour and the Greens in office.  The picture is pretty consistent for years now.   Which suggests it might be reasonable to suppose that people who own,  or are considering starting, businesses have been making rational choices, with the information available to them, about the prospects for investment in New Zealand.  In sum, not particularly good –  and this despite the considerable boost to demand (and need for domestic buildings etc) that a big unexpected shock to the population will have given rise to.

Consistent with that, the Governor may not be aware that productivity growth in New Zealand has also been lousy for years now –  almost non-existent in the last few.  Profitability and productivity are not, at all, the same thing, but they often go hand in hand –  great opportunities, offering high returns to shareholders, are often ones that will tend to lift the overall productivity of the economy.  New productivity opportunities are often only realised through a new wave of investment (which firms will only undertake if they expect those projects to be profitable).

And we could add to the list of symptoms –  perhaps the Governor also counts them as “quality problems” –  things like a tradables sector that has been going sideways, exports as a share of GDP not rebounding at all, the failure of the government to do anything material to fix the housing market, high corporate tax rates, and a range of actual or looming regulatory restrictions on investment opportunities in New Zealand.   Not the sort of things most people would call “quality problems”.

Of course, the Governor is particularly keen on more public capital spending –  infrastructure.   But, here again, if the opportunities were so great, the numbers would be likely to speak for themselves –  really high benefit/cost ratios showing up when projects are evaluated.  Perhaps the Governor is privy to such estimates, but the rest of us are not so favoured.  Too many of the projects that do go ahead seem like borderline cases at best.

Much of any reasoning the lies behind the Governor’s claims seems to rest on little more than the fact that interest rates are low. But in and of itself, that tells us almost nothing.  After all, interest rates are (very) low for a reason, and as I noted in my post yesterday no one –  including the Reserve Bank, at least based on anything they’ve shown or told us –  has a compelling story about just what is going on and why.   But the revealed behaviour of firms doesn’t suggest they’ve seen it as some windfall that means it is a great time to invest –  with perhaps the only challenge being which of the abundance of riches of possible high-yielding projects one might tackle first.

Out of interest I had a look at other advanced countries.  After all, these extraordinarily low interest rates prevail across almost all of the advanced world (and, as I’ve noted previously, implied forward rates are still higher here than in most countries).  The IMF has data on total investment as a share of GDP for a group of 30+ advanced economies.  In all of them, real and nominal interest rates are (of course) far lower than they were in, say, the 2000s prior to the 2008/09 recession.   Notwithstanding that, for the median of these 35 advanced countries, investment as a share of GDP last year was 2.7 percentage points of GDP lower than it just prior to the crisis/recession.   That is a significant reduction, despite the wonderful investment climate the Governor blithely talks of, in which it would be hard for anyone to be nervous about investing.   Only four of the 35 countries had investment now higher than it was then (Sweden, Norway, Germany, and Austria –  only Sweden more than 1 percentage point of GDP higher).

Now, these IMF numbers are total investment not business investment, and I don’t have the time today to recalculate the business investment numbers (for OECD countries), but it isn’t a picture that suggests that most people actually making investment choices share the blithe optimism of the Governor.   It isn’t particularly confidence-inspiring, or suggestive that he knows much on this topic on which he opines so often.

He could, of course, be right.  Perhaps there really are opportunities just left on the table, even though they offer high returns and/or modest risk.  If so, the market is open.  There is nothing to stop the Governor handing over the reins at the Reserve Bank and seeking an appointment as a private sector CEO, or indeed attracting capital from new investors to start his own enterprise.

I imagine most people will be content to respect the wisdom of crowds –  without necessarily fully understanding it –  and to conclude that when investment has been sluggish for years, even as aggregate demand is ok, labour is fairly fully-employed, and credit conditions haven’t been overly constraining that, despite the very low interest rates, there are huge numbers of attractive propositions going begging because people with their own money at stake aren’t persuaded by the Governor’s rhetoric.

We have very serious economic problems in New Zealand.  They aren’t being addressed by our politicians or our officials, and the Governor seems more interesting in playing distraction, whistling to keep spirits up, than getting to the bottom of those really serious and longrunning economic failures.    Fortunately, in his current role the Governor has almost no say over investment –  other than to opine –  but the lightweight rhetoric does nothing to instill confidence about his handling of those areas where he has great (and excessive) power: bank capital for example.

On other matters, an unexpected family death means I’ll be in Christchurch for the next few days and there won’t be any more posts until Monday.

 

Wages have risen faster than output per hour

I have a few other things on my plate today, but I thought I’d just share this update to a chart I’ve run before, showing wage growth (using the LCI analytical unadjusted measure for the private sector) relative to growth in nominal GDP per hour worked.

GDP and wages aug 19.png

When the line is moving upwards, private sector wage rates have been rising faster than nominal GDP per hour worked.  Growth in nominal GDP per hour work can be loosely conceptualised as some measure of the economy’s capacity to pay (average overall domestic production is rising that rapidly, leaving to be resolved the extent to which those gains –  whether from the terms of trade, productivity, or just general inflation –  end up going to labour or capital).

The reason the chart has tantalised me since I first stumbled across the idea of constructing it a couple of years ago, is (of course) that private sector wages in New Zealand do seem to have been rising faster than “the capacity of the economy to pay”.  It has happened in fits and starts, and there is a fair bit of noise in the data, but the trend since about 2001 has been pretty clearly upwards.   (The wages data released this morning give us June quarter numbers for the numerator, and hours worked data, and here I’ve assumed nominal GDP rose 1 per cent in the June quarter.)   The cumulative difference over time –  around 15 per cent now –  is not small.

As a reminder, here is the comparable chart for Australia, which I included in a post last week.

wages in aus

The New Zealand numbers do not, repeat not, suggest that people are in some sense overpaid in New Zealand.  Mostly, wage rates are a market outcome (firms and employees, and the respective opportunities etc), and although policy initiatives like pay equity settlements and large minimum wage increases have boosted the New Zealand line in the last few years, those specific measures don’t explain the longer-term trend to anything like the full extent.

The New Zealand numbers also don’t suggest that New Zealand workers are doing particularly well in an absolute sense.  They aren’t.   New Zealand incomes lag well behind those in leading advanced countries.  But although wages can and do wander away from aggregate economywide productivity for a time, in the longer-term only productivity growth can really underpin a closing of those wage/income gaps.  As I’ve highlighted here before, it would take productivity increases of about 60 per cent here to match the leading OECD bunch.  And we’ve had virtually no productivity growth at all in recent years.   All the data is saying is that workers haven’t done too badly given a badly-performing economy: little or no productivity growth and fairly stable terms of trade.

But most people would still have been better off had we actually managed decent productivity growth, and if the economy were not so badly skewed as to have a substantially overvalued exchange rate and, in association with that, non-tradables sectors doing well, but tradables sectors as a whole typically doing poorly.   Reasonably strong domestic demand can result in high demand for labour, and higher wage rates.  But the associated overvalued real exchange rate deters (crowds out) the sort of investment in internationally competitive industries that might have allowed real productivity gains to have been achieved.

On which note, I’ll end with the OECD’s real exchange rate measure for New Zealand, calculated using relative unit labour costs (ie wages adjusted for productivity).

rel ULcs.png

The orange line is the average for the last 15 years:  far higher than for any sustained period in the history of the series, even as our productivity performance has remained pretty woeful.  And, of course, at the end of the period the series is above even that fifteen-year average.

Emissions and immigration policy

Just listened to an RNZ interview with National’s climate change spokesman Todd Muller, around the silly question of whether or not a “climate emergency” should be declared.  Muller called it symbolism, but symbols have a place –  it is much worse than that, just empty feel-good virtue signalling  (whether or not you think our governments should be more aggressive in doing something to lower New Zealand emissions).

But Muller introduced his comments referring back to a sense as early as 1990 that something needed to be done.  And it reminded me of the single worst policy National and Labour have presided over for the last 30 years, in terms of boosting emissions from New Zealand: immigration policy.

New Zealand’s population in 1990 was about 3.3 million.  Today it is almost five million.  And here is a chart, using official data (which has some weaknesses, but the broad picture is reliable) of the cumulative inflow of non-New Zealand citizens since 1990.

PLT 2019

That data series was dumped last year, but you can add another 60000 or so people in the year since then.    Almost all of them needed explicit prior approval from New Zealand governments –  more than 1.1 million of them.

Over such a long period, the cumulative inflow becomes a little misleading.   It understates the impact.  Of course, over 30 years some of the migrants will have died, but many more will have had children (or even grandchildren).  Those children will (mostly) be New Zealand citizens, but that doesn’t change the fact that their presence –  and their emissions (resulting from their life and economic activity) – results from explicit immigration policy choices.

Those who are made uncomfortable by all this but simply wish to dismiss it will say “oh, but emissions and climate change are a global problem, and it doesn’t really matter where the people are”.  Strangely, this is not usually an argument the same people invoke when they favour (say) New Zealand oil and gas exploration bans, or other New Zealand specific actions that will have either no impact on global emissions, or only a trivial impact.

As you will no doubt recall, it is not as if New Zealand is already some low-emissions nirvana.  Per unit of GDP (average) emissions in New Zealand are among the very highest, and per capita (average) emissions are also in the top handful of OECD countries.    The typical migrant to New Zealand is not coming from a country that has higher emissions than we do.    Rather the reverse.  Of course, it isn’t easy to distinguish (empirically) the marginal and average emissions, but it is simply silly to suggest that the policy-driven rapid population growth has not had a material impact in boosting total New Zealand emissions –  migrants drive cars and fly, migrants live and work in buildings (that often use concrete), migrants have even helped maintain the economics of the dairy industry.  On a cross-country basis, I showed in an earlier post the largely unsurprising relationship betwen population growth and change in emissions over decades.  New Zealand’s experience was not an outlier (except perhaps in the sense of much faster –  policy-driven –  population growth, reflected in the emissions growth numbers.  If anything, and at the margin, New Zealand’s immigration policy has probably increased global emissions.

Of course, there would be a reasonable counter-argument to all this if it could be confidently shown that the high rates of immigration –  highest in the OECD for planned immigration of non-citizens over the period since, say, 1990 – had substantially boosted average productivity in New Zealand.  Then the additional emissions, and associated abatement costs (not small), would simply have to be weighed against the permanent gains in material living standards from the immigration itself.  But even the staunchest defenders of high –  or higher still – rates of immigration can’t show those sorts of productivity gains and (since demonstrating it would be a tall order) can’t even come up with a compelling narrative in which large productivity gains from immigration go hand in hand with the continued decline in our productivity performance relative to other advanced economies.

If the government (or the National Party) were serious about “doing our bit” (or just “being seen to do our bit”) about emissions and climate change, and if –  at the same time –  they really cared much about living standards of New Zealanders (‘wellbeing’ if you must), they would be taking immediate steps to cut permanent immigration approvals very substantially.  Not only would that lower population growth and emissions growth relatively directly, but it would result in a materially lower real exchange rate, which would greatly ease the burden on competitiveness that other anti-emissions measures are likely to impose over the next few years, would ease pressures on the domestic environment (and might even, thinking of my post earlier this week, ease the economic pressures on the dairy industry, while providing margins to deal directly with the environmental issues around that industry).

For the country as a whole –  New Zealanders –  it would be a win-win.   That isn’t to pretend there would not be some individual losers –  we’d need fewer houses, potentially developable land would be less valuable, and some industries (particularly non-tradables ones) that have come to rely on migrant labour would face some adjustments.  But, and lets face it, there is no sign the existing model –  in place in some form or another for several decades –  has worked well for the average New Zealander –  the productivity performance has been lamentable, and we’ve created a large rod for our own back on the emissions front.

But our political parties – every single one in Parliament, based on words and on their records in government –  would prefer to pretend otherwise, and keep on with the failed, corrosive, immigration policy, which hasn’t worked for us, is unlikely to ever do so (given our remoteness etc) and is so far out of step with what the bulk of advanced countries do.

 

40 years on

The almost-always-upbeat Herald “Business Editor at Large” Liam Dann had a column yesterday reflecting on the changes in the New Zealand economy  in the 30 years since he was studying 7th form economics in 1989.  “Studying” may be an overly generous term here: in Dann’s words

Let’s ignore the fact that I was a distracted surfer with a bad blonde haircut, prone to sitting with the most disruptive kids in the room.

As it happens, it is 40 years since I was studying 7th form economics (I was the nerdy kid).

In the 30 years since Dann’s 7th form economics teacher was bemoaning all that was wrong with the New Zealand economy then, inflation has come down, the unemployment rate is lower, and governments normally aim to run operating surpluses. We were in the middle of an extensive economic restructuring back then, and the full aftermath of the massive credit and asset price boom of the previous handful of years was just about to be felt (DFC, for example, failed in late 1989, while the second BNZ crisis was still another year away).    Net public debt in 1989 was about 40 per cent of GDP  –  not disastrous, but far from good either –  but (little recognised at the time or later) the government was already running primary surpluses (ie deficits were mostly financing costs, the real consequences of which were, in turn, overstated by the effects of inflation).

But I wondered how the comparisons looked with 1979, my 7th form year.   Inflation in 1979 had been even worse than it was by 1989 (when we were already well on the way to getting back to something like price stability), but on the other hand the unemployment rate in 1979 is estimated to have been (backdated HLFS estimates) only  about 1.4 per cent.  Quite a difference from today.     And, somewhat to my surprise when I checked the Treasury’s numbers, net public debt as a share of GDP in 1979 was much the same as it is now.  And if the financial sector in 1979 was still more regulated than it is today – I was regaling my kids yesterday with stories about how the last restrictions on current account foreign exchange transactions didn’t come off until 1982 –  at least at the time the policy changes were in the right direction (liberalising), not the wrong direction as we’ve now been for the past six years.

Some things are clearly better than in either 1979 or 1989 –  New Zealand’s terms of trade reached the end of a longrunning decline in about 1988 and (equally outside our control) have been quite a lot stronger since then.  For such small mercies we should be grateful (a 20 per cent lift in the terms of trade is roughly equivalent to a 6 per cent lift in average national incomes).

And I’m not here disputing that in material terms the average New Zealander is materially better off than our parents were in 1979 or 1989 (be it life expectancy, smartphones, cheaper cars, overseas holidays etc).  That is true of almost every country in the world (think Venezuela for the sorts of places that are exceptions.    And those also aren’t the arguments Liam Dann seems to be making when he says of the present –  the headline to his column  –   “The economic numbers that would have blown us away in the 1980s”.

Instead he talked about how hard it was (in prospect) to get a job as a young person in 1989.  Maybe, but as it happens the employment rates for 15-19 and 20-24 year olds are pretty similar now to what they were in 1989 (and, sure, more people go on to tertiary education now, but it will be a rare tertiary student now who doesn’t have a part-time job.

Now, in a way I have been a little unfair to Dann so far.  Despite the headline, I don’t think his intention was to be that upbeat.  Later in his column he notes high levels of private debt, and the incidence of homelessness (although weirdly he presents the latter as being in some sense the “price of economic stability” –  which is simply wrong.    But he avoids actually identifying the policy changes –  land use restrictions etc –  that have meant that whereas in 1979 (in particular, near the trough of a multi-year real house price slump) or in 1989, houses were relatively affordable, they simply are not today.  I’ve noted previously, that I bought my first house in 1989.  In today’s dollar terms, that house cost just under $300000, just down the road from where I live now.  The same house today would probably cost $850000+ (the median price now for this suburb is just over $900000).    It leaves me very glad I was 26 then, not 26 now.

Perhaps the worst of it is diminished ambitions.

Back in the late 1970s, people talked in terms of how we’d crippled out export prospects, recognising that a small country’s prosperity depended on lot on the ability to create a climate in which locally-based firms were taking on the world and winning.  People talked in terms of the tax on actual and potential exporters that tariffs and quotas represented, and looked forward to a day  when we’d stop tying two arms behind our back.  By 1989 many of these restrictions etc were well on the way to being removed, but everyone knew it took time for the gains to flow –  indeed, we had expert overseas advisers highlightin the significance of the real exchange rate (then temporarily boosted by the drive to get inflation down).

And yet 30 or 40 years on, the foreign trade shares of GDP (exports and imports) are much the same now as they were then.   There is still lots of talk about export-led growth etc, but no remotely credible story from our politicians or officials as to how this might –  at last – come to be.

And then, of course, there is the small matter of productivity. It isn’t everything, but (in words not original to me) when it comes to long-term average material living standards it is almost everything.

The 1970s were a disastrous decade for New Zealand productivity.  We slipped a long way down the OECD rankings in a single decade.

And here is an adaptation of a table I’ve shown here previously (I’ve just added a 1980 column), comparing average labour productivity in New Zealand and in the leading bunch of OECD countries.

Table 1: Labour productivity: New Zealand and a leading OECD group
GDP per hour worked
USD, constant prices, 2010 PPPs
1970 1980 1990 2017
New Zealand 21.4 22.7 28.5 37.3
Netherlands 27.5 40.2 47.7 62.6
Belgium 25 37.9 46.6 64.8
Denmark 25.1 34.8 44.7 64.9
France 21.6 32.0 43 59.8
Germany 22.3 32.2 40.6 60.5
Sweden 27.2 34.5 38.8 61.7
United States 30.9 35.9 41.8 64.2
Median of seven 25.1 34.8 43 62.6
NZ as per cent of median 85.3 65.2 66.3 59.6

We’ve lost quite a lot more ground since 1979/80 or 1989/90.  In fact, the period of worst relative performance on this metric has been in the last few years, when we’ve managed no productivity growth at all.  No individual year is disastrous, but cumulatively it represents as astonishing slippage, that should be alarming – and once seemed so to our elites.

(This table compares New Zealand with the OECD leading bunch now.  I also did the comparison against the seven countries in the leading bunch in 1989 (Italy was one of those countries).  We also kept on losing ground against them, although –  logically –  a bit less so.)

Relative to what might have been our potential –  the global advanced country productivity frontiers, in a countries none of which have anything like ideal policies –  we’ve done poorly on the economic fronts that really count.  Sure, we have achieved a much higher degree of macro stability –  and that is no trivial achievement, although most countries like us (small advanced) have done something similar.    But we’ve fallen further behind on productivity, and rendered the housing and urban land market seriously dysfunctional.  Firms don’t find it more attractive to trade globally from here.   And there isn’t much sign our “leaders”  –  political or bureaucratic –  care much, are interested in finding the answers or acting to bring about better tomorrows.

Liam Dann writes

It has struck me that were I to time-travel back and share New Zealand’s current economic statistics with Mr Shaw, he would be gobsmacked by the nation’s success.

To be honest, reflecting on what I’ve written here, if I could time travel back to 1989 and share New Zealand’s economic situation now with my 1989 self –  a young policy manager and economist at the Reserve Bank – the young me would have been gobsmacked by the extent of the failure and (more so) by the apparent indifference to it, the refusal to grapple with what it would take to make things better.  (Although I would have been pleasantly surprised by the inflation track record –  I recall in the early 90s casually offering a bet to one bank chief economist that inflation wouldn’t average below 3 per cent for the following 15 years.)

What is really depressing – with a son doing Year 12 economics this year (a year that focuses on macro) – is the thought that in thirty years time he might look back astonished at how poorly New Zealand has continued to do relative to countries that were once its peers.

More data on our feeble economic performance

The media coverage of the outgoing Air New Zealand CEO Christopher Luxon’s political ambitions prompted me to dig out a post I wrote a year or so ago, inspired jointly by the Prime Minister and her Business Advisory Council (which Luxon chairs) and by an old article by Paul Krugman, “A country is not a company”.    As he ponders what to do next, I hope Luxon takes the time to read Krugman’s piece.  Of course, it is fair to note that the current crop of politicians –  across all parties – is generally so unimpressive, accomplishing so little for New Zealanders, that I wouldn’t want to be thought of as suggesting that retired CEOs would be any worse than (say) crown prosecutors, political advisers or whatever.

Also yesterday, the latest quarterly national accounts data were released.  The headline numbers seemed to be a touch higher than those who forecast these things in detail had expected, but not in a way that really changes the underlying picture: it has been a weak recovery (now eight or nine years into it) and whatever supported moderate growth appears to have been fading.

In that post from last year, I quoted a speech by the Prime Minister on the economy, including launching the Business Advisory Council.  I wasn’t that impressed, but did quote some of her aspirations.

Yesterday morning the Prime Minister gave her promised speech on the economy.  It was, frankly, astonishing how little there was there.   There was some mention of the problems

Our overall objective is to build a productive, sustainable and inclusive economy.

On each score we have some way to go. When it comes to productivity, the OECD has said we are “well below leading OECD countries, restraining living standards and well-being”

and

We need to transition from growth dominated by population increase and housing speculation, to build an economy, that as I said, is genuinely productive, sustainable and inclusive.

and

First we want to grow and share more fairly New Zealand’s prosperity.

That means the gap between the highest and lowest income and wealth deciles reduces, real per capita income increases; the value and diversity of our exports grows and home ownership increases.

In particular we want to build our exports and have export led growth.

Which is all well and good, but there is nothing –   nothing –  in the speech about what the government proposes to do

Another year on, how are we doing?

On productivity, shockingly poorly.  Recall that we start with labour productivity levels barely 60 per cent of those of the leading OECD countries (US and various northern European countries).

Here is a chart of labour productivity growth since just prior to the last recession. (As ever, I here average the two GDP measures and the two hours measures.)

GDP phw mar 19

The orange line is the average for the last five years.

Since the current government took office, total growth in labour productivity has been 0.2 per cent.  But there is quarter to quarter noise, and as the chart illustrates whatever is going on was in place well before the current government took office.   There is no sign this lot are doing anything that is producing new and better results, but since the start of  2012 total productivity growth has been not much more than 1 per cent.  That is over seven years.  It is a shockingly poor record.

What about that talk of “building exports and export-led growth”?  No doubt the PM and her ministers are repeatedly fed lines about how successful New Zealand’s strategy of signing up preferential trade agreeements with all manner of countries has been. There are certainly lots of documents, but here is a chart showing exports and imports as a share of GDP, starting from the same point as the previous chart, just prior to the last recession.

ex and im

The numbers bounce around a bit with fluctuations in commodity prices and in the exchange rate, but broadly speaking the share of our economy accounted for by foreign trade has been shrinking, not expanding.    That isn’t a good sign (those with longer memories will recall that the previous government once had a specific goal of raising the export share to 40 per cent).   There are much more important issues –  than busy, busy trade agreements –  that simply aren’t even being addressed, or (it seems) even recognised.

I don’t have a chart for it, but everyone recognises that nothing has yet been done that would make any material difference to the housing price disaster that successive waves of central and local governments have inflicted on us.

It isn’t clear that, on matters economic (which have real implications across numerous dimensions of “wellbeing”) this government is really any worse than its predecessor.    But what a low bar that would be.  Neither main party –  or, as far as one can tell, any of the minor parties –  seems interested in getting to grips with creating a climate that generates materially better economic outcomes.    Easier, I suppose, to just pretend.   That way, among other things, you don’t need top-notch economic advisers and institutions.  But what a betrayal of New Zealanders.

 

 

 

Productivity by the numbers

That is the title of a new paper, intended (it appears) to inaugurate an annual series, from the Productivity Commission.   It is full of interesting tables and charts, and usefully drives home the point –  made repeatedly on this blog, and elsewhere –  that (a) longer-term productivity growth in New Zealand has been poor, and (b) that productivity growth matters for all sorts of other things New Zealanders individually or collectively care about.

Productivity growth in New Zealand has lagged since at least the 1950s.  On the data we have, the worst decade (falling further behind) was the 1970s, but the Productivity Commission usefully highlights that we have on slipping even in the last couple of decades.  This is one of their charts, showing the level of labour productivity in 1996 (about when the full OECD data series starts) and growth in productivity since then.

NZPC prod

Broadly speaking, the cross-country story has been one convergence: countries with lower initial productivity catching up (top left quadrant) and those with higher initial productivity growing more slowly (bottom right quadrant).   There is only one country in the top right quadrant (Ireland), but that is substantially a measurement issue stemming from the corporate tax rules.

But, as the Commission highlights, New Zealand is in the bottom left quadrant: countries that had only modest productivity levels in 1996, and still managed to grow slowly in the subsequent decades.  The real basket-case is, of course, Mexico, but we find ourselves grouped with Portugal and Greece, and Israel and Japan  (as I’ve noted here previously, it is well past time people in New Zealand stopped talking of Israel as some sort of high-growth exemplar).

I like the chart, and I’ve highlighted here previously the contrast between the productivity growth performance of the central and eastern European OECD member countries (top left) and New Zealand, including noting that several of them now have productivity levels very similar to those in New Zealand and are still growing fast.   I dug out the data for a similar chart going back to 1970 (when the OECD database begins, but for a smaller sample of countries).   Over that full period, we stand out as the underperformer.

But the Productivity Commission does rather tend to pull its punches (they are a government-funded agency, and depend wholly on (a) the resources the government allocates to them, (b) the quality of the Commissioners governments appoint, and (c) the character of the issues governments invite them to investigate).  (On (b) it seems somewhat overdue for the government to announced a replacement for now-departed former Secretary to the Treasury, and highly-regarded economist, Graham Scott, who has served as a Commissioner since the Productivity Commission was founded).

Pull its punches?  Reading “Productivity by the Numbers” you would have no idea how absolutely poor our labour productivity performance had been over the last few years.

Tsy productivity GDP phw

And there is, therefore, no sense of what light this experience might shed on possible explanations for our continued long-term underperformance.

They are also a bit self-promoting, suggesting that reversing the productivity underperformance “has been a central theme of the Productivity Commission’s work since 2011”.  If anything, the opposite has been true.  The Commission research team (when led by the now-departed Paul Conway) has at times produced some interesting papers on the issue, but the Commission’s core work is the inquiries successive governments have asked them to undertake, and not one of those inquiries has had as its focus economywide productivity failures and challenges.  Some of the inquiries have led the Commission down pathways which can, at best, be described as limiting the (economic) damage –  eg the low emissions inquiry.  On the other hand, the Commission has done a (mostly) positive job in helping to develop a more widely shared recognition that land use regulatory restrictions (and associated infrastructure financing perhaps) are at the heart of the housing disaster successive central and local governments have presided over for the best part of three decades.

“Productivity by the numbers” is mostly descriptive – tables, charts, and comments thereon – but the authors do weigh in a little on possible explanations.  They include this table, taken from another recent article

NZPC prod 2

A couple of the items in the left-hand column are clearly intended as a nod in the direction of my ideas (referenced in the article the table is drawn from), and I welcome that.  But it isn’t clear that the Commission –  let alone the government’s official departmental advisers – is even close to a current integrated and persuasive narrative of what has gone wrong and how, if at all, things might be fixed.    As is perhaps inevitable in a summary table, many of the items are at best stylised facts (some probably not even facts).

The report goes on

This work has highlighted that New Zealand’s poor productivity performance has been a persistent problem over decades and turning this around will require consistent and focussed effort over many fronts and for many years. There is no simple quick fix.

It is a convenient line –  especially as there is no political appetite for change anyway –  but I don’t believe it is true.  Sure, we aren’t going to close the productivity gaps overnight, and sure there are (always) lots of useful reforms that could make a difference in a small way.  But here we aren’t dealing with the small differences between, say, productivity in the Netherlands and that in Belgium.  For an underperformance as large and as sustained as New Zealand’s – in what is substantially a market economy with passable institutions (rule of law etc) – it is highly likely that there are (at most) a handful of really important policy failures (things done or not done) where most of the mileage from reform would be likely to arise.  And there the Commission just does not engage.   Instead it tries to move on to a more upbeat story, and to shift the “blame” onto the private sector.

Indeed, work is already taking place in many areas, including in competition policy, infrastructure, science and innovation, and education and the labour market. There is growing interest in the need to improve Kiwi firms’ management practices and ability to learn (absorptive capacity), which shape their ability to innovate and improve their productivity (Harris & Le, 2018).

To me, much of this seems like dreamland stuff, deliberately choosing to avoid hard questions, while flattering the egos of ministers and officials in Treasury or MBIE.   Whatever the Productivity Commission thinks is good among those topics in the first sentence (and I struggle to think of anything much), it isn’t credible to suppose that the things they like about current policy even begin to make the sort of difference required to reverse the productivity failures.  And much as officials and academics like to suggest there is something wrong with New Zealand businesses (convenient that), there is no evidence that New Zealand firms and employees (managers and others) would be any less able to identify and respond to opportunities if government roadblocks and obstacles, including distorted relative prices, were fixed.

In the report, the Productivity Commission highlights how much we will miss out on if productivity growth continues to underperform the (somewhat arbitrary) 1.5 per cent per annum growth assumption in Treasury’s medium-term fiscal model.  The point is that small differences compound in ways that make for big differences in material living standards and opportunities.  And on that count I totally agree with them.    I made a similar point the other way round in a post on productivity last year.

I’ve banged on here about how dismal productivity growth in New Zealand has been in the last five years in particular. The best-performing OECD countries over the most recent five years were averaging more than 2 per cent productivity growth per annum – and all of them were countries catching up with the most productive economies, just as we once aspired to do. If we’d managed 2 per cent productivity growth per annum in the last five years, per capita GDP would be around $5000 per head higher (per man, woman, and child) today.

Catching up to the top tier will, in a phrase from Nietzche, take a “long obedience in the same direction” – setting a course and sticking to it. But here is a scenario in which the top tier countries achieve 1 per cent average annual productivity growth, and we manage 2.5 per cent average annual productivity growth. Here’s what that scenario looks like:

nzpc prod 3

I’ve marked the point, 15 years or so hence, where the gap would have closed by half.

I don’t usually quote Nietzsche, but here is the full quote

“The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is… that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”

What matters in an economy like New Zealand now isn’t finding 100 or 300 things to reform – sensible as many of them might be –  but finding the one (or two or three) things that might make a real difference, adjusting policy accordingly, and then persevering long enough to start seeing real and substantial results.     There is no reason why New Zealand should not again manage something close to top tier OECD average labour productivity, but –  on the demonstrated –  there is no reason to suppose that (a) anything like the current policy mix will deliver it, or (b) that tiny changes at the margin will deliver very substantially different results.    Welcome as the Productivity Commission’s statistical compilation is, those are the messages that need to be heard more loudly.

Sadly, of course, not a single political party seems to have any appetite for reversing our decades of economic decline.  But, just possibly, a compelling narrative from an authoritative body like the Productivity Commission might one day begin to change that.  At present, instead, the Commission seems in some unsatisfactory place where they don’t have the answers, and to the extent they sense some elements of an answer, they don’t want to upset anyone.