Two years on

The weekend newspapers had several articles highlighting the second anniversary of the New Zealand First choice that led to the creation of the current government.  There was, for example, the double-page spread  in the Herald devoted to a not-at-all-searching interview with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance.  And there was another double-page article in the Dominion-Post looking at the government’s performance under a range of policy headings.  Since the government’s term is now two-thirds over –  likely to be in full campaign mode (say) nine months from now –  it seems not unreasonable to take a look at performance.

The Stuff political stuff divided up nine policy areas between them and wrote short reviews of the government’s performance in each of them.  On my reading, they tended towards a generous assessment.  All governments do stuff –  sometimes even just things in the works under a previous government – and where this government has done most (education notably) there isn’t a huge amount of evidence that there were real problems that needed fixing, or that their fixes were dealing with whatever real problems there were.

Take housing, for example, where the Stuff journalists summarise thus

Two years into the Government’s term, housing is far from Labour’s strong point, but it is not an area of total failure.

So house prices are still rising, rents are still rising (even in a low-interest rate world in which provision of rental housing could/should have been cheaper than ever) and there has been no legislation to free-up urban land markets, or to compel local authorities to operate a more liberal approach.   Set against that, a foreign buyers’ ban was largely irrelevant, and there is little reason to suppose that building a lot more state houses will increase the overall effective supply of housing (certainly won’t deal with the land issues).  For what was declared to be a “crisis” –  I’ll just settle for disgrace –  what has been done, or accomplished, is astonishingly little.  And it isn’t as if markets are pricing in better outcomes in future either.

But what really caught my eye was that there was no discussion of the government’s economic policy performance.  One might reasonably grant them a pass mark on fiscal stewardship –  but on anything beyond that the best reason why Stuff might have chosen to overlook this key area of policy is that there just isn’t much there at all.

Back when they were in Opposition we would, occasionally, here about the lack of any decent productivity growth, talk about growing export sectors, and so on.  Even today, the mantra of a “productive and sustainable” economy gets rolled out from time to time…..but with almost nothing to back it.

Actual productivity growth still languishes – running at no more than 0.5 per cent per annum, slower than in most other OECD countries. (It is fair to note here that there could be material revisions to a large number of macro series over the next couple of months, consequent on the census (and subsequent creative efforts) results, but there is no obvious reason to anticipate material improvements.)

There is no sign that the external orientation of the economy has strengthened (eg exports and imports as a share of GDP). no sign of robust business investment, and of course we all know that business confidence results are in the doldrums.  Interest rates have had to be cut further and the real exchange rate remains pretty high.

And what response has government policy made?   The government seems to have made quite a fuss about the new research and development tax credit. But they’ve produced no sustained analysis illustrating why this will make a great difference – and no sustained either looking at why firms didn’t regard higher rates of R&D spending here as offering attractive risk-adjusted returns.  And that really is about it.

And on the other hand, we have the government sitting idly by while the Reserve Bank Governor pursues his whim of making credit less readily available and more expensive, a halt to most new road-building even as the population continues to increase rapidly (and not, even, say, a congestion-pricing regime that might help reconcile the two), a ban on most oil and gas exploration, looming new regulatory restrictions around water.  Oh, and immigration policy –  for which there is no evidence of systematic economywide gains, in a country where (fixed) natural resources underpin prosperity –  is, if anything, becoming more liberal.

The government keeps telling us it has a plan.  I wrote here at the start of the year about an economics speech the Prime Minister gave, concluding

If there is any sign of a plan, it isn’t one that is going to do anything to lift our economic performance, in the short or longer-term.   All indications are that the Prime Minister doesn’t care. 

And then last month the government released something they did call an “Economic Plan” – in fact a thirty year one.  Notwithstanding all the glossy pictures and long lists of points, it sank without a trace, barely even reported at the time, even with a supporting op-ed from the Prime Minister herself (my take was here).

Once upon a time, I wondered (perhaps naively) if perhaps they –  upper reaches of the Labour Party – really did care.  They should.  After all, it is their traditional voters –  the poorer people, the working classes, the younger –  who suffer most from the decades-long failure of successive governments to improve New Zealand’s woefully poor productivity performance.    But all the evidence from their time in office is that any care is superficial at best.  Sure, they’d probably welcome a much better performing economy if it suddenly dawned fresh and shiny.  But they seem to have no real ideas, no compelling narrative, for how to markedly re-orient our economic performance, and they is no apparent interest in finding answers, or ensuring that our economic policy and analytical institutions are delivering them serious advice, grounded in the actual experience of New Zealand, on policy approaches that might really make a difference.

It is an utter abdication of responsibility.  No one made them run for office, no one forces them to stay in office, but when they take office they have responsibilities for the future prosperity of New Zealanders that they show no sign of taking at all seriously.

An academic economist left this comment on one of my weekend posts

With this in mind, I must confess that I always threaten to fail my Otago students if they don’t migrate to Austalia, because it shows they haven’t learnt anything from me; but the university doesn’t allow me to deliver on the threat. Still, most would be financially better off if they took this advice, and migrated to a place where better firms are located, and sought jobs there.

Sadly true.  And what a sad commentary on decades of policy failure here: Labour ministers currently hold all the key portfolios (Prime Minister, Minister of Financem Minister of Economic Development) and it is their failure now.

 

Rygbi

My 12 year old daughter has been teaching herself Welsh –  a recent birthday present was a good Welsh-English dictionary – we’ve recently been watching a rather bleak Welsh detective series together, and this year she has also become (unlike her father) a bit of a rugby (“rygbi” in Welsh apparently) fanatic so I promised her that if Wales made the World Cup semi-finals I’d do a Welsh-themed post.  That’s economics rather than rugby though.

One of the themes of much modern economics literature is things about cities, location, agglomeration, distance and so on.  According to Eurostat data, London has the one of the very highest GDPs per capita of any region in the EU¹.  The two largest cities in Wales –  Cardiff and Swansea –  are each less than 200 miles from London.  And yet estimated GDP per capita in Wales is only about 40 per cent of that in London and 75 per cent of that in the EU as a whole (71 per cent of the UK as a whole).  Productivity in Wales (GDP per hour worked) might be about that of New Zealand.

And yet Wales has much the same policy regime as London.  Much the same regulatory environment, same income, consumption, and company tax rates, same currency (and interest rates and banks), same external trade regime, same national government (and as I understand it the Welsh regional administration doesn’t have control of very much), and the same immigration regime.  Most of the people are native English speakers (even many of those who also speak Welsh).

Huge populations are free to move to Wales.  There are 66 million people in the UK who face no regulatory obstacles to doing so.  They could set up firms in Wales.  So –  for the moment –  could people in most of the EU, and all legal migrants to the United Kingdom (with no particular ties to any other UK region) could move to Wales.  It isn’t open borders but in practical terms it is much closer to it than almost any sovereign state.

And yet……by and large they don’t.  The population of Wales today is only 50 per cent larger than it was in 1900 and only about 5 per cent of the population is born outside the British Isles.  Here is the share of Wales in the total population of the Great Britain.

wales 1

Wales used to have things going for it: plenty of room for sheep (wool and meat were two of our big exports to the urban population of the UK), the world’s largest slate industry,  and coal (lots of it) and the associated iron and steel (the latter booming from the start of the 20th century) industries.

But not, it appears, very much at all these days.   There is some tourism, some electricity exports (to the rest of Britain) and, of course, a variety of other industries.  It all generates tolerable living standards. albeit supported by significant inward fiscal transfers.  Unemployment is low, and (by New Zealand or London standards) house prices are fairly low –  Swansea (second biggest city) has median house prices around $350000.  But people in the rest of the UK, migrants to the UK, and –  importantly – actual/potential entrepreneurs don’t seem to find it terribly attractive.  Perhaps it would be different if it were an independent country –  the Irish company tax regime is apparently eyed up by some. But as it isn’t, one gets a cleaner read on the pure economic geography effects.

It is interesting to wonder what might have happened to Wales if it were an independent country and, all else equal, had had control of its own immigration policy.  What if they’d adopted a Canadian or New Zealand immigration policy –  or something even more liberal –  20 years ago?   Since there are plenty of places in the world much poorer than Wales (or New Zealand), and Wales itself is a small place, presumably they’d have had no trouble attracting people –  at least modestly qualified people from places poorer, or less safe, again: China, India, South Africa, the Philippines (to name just four significant source countries for New Zealand).   Even if many of the migrants initially saw Wales as backdoor entry to England, if New Zealand’s experience is anything to go by (become a citizen here and you can immediately move to much wealthier Australia) most wouldn’t.  Presumably the Welsh building sector would have been a lot bigger, but it isn’t obvious that many more outward-oriented businesses would have chosen Cardiff or Swansea over London or Paris or Amsterdam, even with the rest of Europe more or less on the doorstep.

Tasmania is another interesting example.  Like Wales, it shares essentially the same  policy regime (taxes, currency, external trade, most regulation) with the sovereign country it is a part of, in this case Australia.  There is unrestricted mobility for people within Australia, and external migrants –  including those from New Zealand –  can as readily settle in Tasmania as anywhere else in Australia. Hobart always looks like a really nice place.

Oh, and the population share of the total country is also small.  But the fall in the population share has been much sharper than for Wales.

wales 2

People –  and firms –  could choose to go to Tasmania but, by and large, they choose not to.  It is, after all, quite a way from Melbourne, and you can neither drive nor take a fairly-speedy train.   And unlike Wales, Tasmania is close to nothing else: Cardiff is much to closer to Dublin, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam or even Frankfurt than Hobart is to Adelaide or Sydney.  Perhaps even more than Wales, the economic opportunities seem to be mostly in the natural resources (and no big new developments there in recent decades) and a few niche industries that might be there because the founder happens to like living there.   GDP per capita in Tasmania is just under 80 per cent of the whole of Australia average.

One could also do an interesting thought experiment as to what might have happened if Tasmania had been an independent country and had its own immigration policy.  Even had they just adopted the same policy as Australia did, almost certainly their population today would be materially larger than it now is (Tasmania now has three times the population it had in 1900, while Australia as a whole has more like seven times the 1900 population).  Being even smaller than Wales they’d have had no trouble attracting people.   But –  even more so than for Wales –  you are left wondering how many more outward-oriented businesses would have chosen to stay based in little Tasmania (few enough outward-oriented businesses are based in even the big Australian cities).

Are there lessons for New Zealand.  Our population has increased almost sixfold since 1900. In that time, we’ve fallen from (roughly) the highest GDP per capita anywhere to somewhere badly trailing the OECD field –  and maintaining even that standing only by work long hours per capita.

wales 3

It looks great to the strain of “big New Zealand” thought that has been around since Vogel at least.  But to what end, for New Zealanders?

Think of one last thought experiment.  What say we’d agreed a completely common immigration policy with Australia and held that in place for the last few decades?  More or less exactly the same number of people would probably have come to Australasia in total, but what do we supposed would have been the split between Australia and New Zealand.   It seems only reasonable to assume that a much larger proportion would have gone to Australia (than did).  After all, even those who went to Australia had a choice of Tasmania if they wanted cooler climes and a slightly slower pace –  but, to a very large extent they didn’t.  And we know what New Zealanders themselves –  who had ties to this physical places –  were choosing over the last 50 years, as hundreds of thousands left for the other side of Tasman.

And had that happened –  and perhaps New Zealand’s population was 3 million not almost 5 million –  is it likely that any fewer market-driven outward-oriented businesses would be based here than are today.   The land, the water, the minerals and the scenery would all still be there.  And how much else is there?

As a best guess, if by some exogenous policy intervention there had been another two million people –  of moderate skills etc – put in Wales, or another half million in Tasmania, it is difficult to have any confidence that average real incomes in either place would be any larger than they are now.  Most probably, they’d be worse off –  as say, the residents of Taihape probably would be if some exogenous intervention put another 5000 people there.  Having put an extra couple of million people in New Zealand – more remote than Tasmania, much more remote than Wales –  and not seen the outward-oriented industries, based on anything other than natural resources growing – we might reasonably assume we (New Zealanders) are poorer as a result.

Smart people are almost always a prerequisite to high incomes, but globally the top tier of incomes seems to focused on industries located in or near big cities, near big population concentrations, or on (finite) natural resources.   You can earn a very standard of living from finite natural resources –  it is the edge Norway has over the rest of Europe – but it looks pretty insane to confuse the two types of economies (when you have no realistic hope of transitioning from one to the other) and spread natural resource based wealth much more thinly by using policy to actively encourage rapid population growth.

From a narrow economic perspective –  and it isn’t of course, the only one the matters – the best thing for people from a lagging economic performance area is to leave.  It is what people did from Taihape or Invercargill, from Ireland for many decades, and (more recently and on a really large scale) what people did from New Zealand as a whole.   Governments can mess up that picture. In a way the Welsh are fortunate to have a rugby team but not an immigration policy, at least had they had the misfortune to have had policymakers like New Zealand’s.

 

  1.  Technically Luxembourg tops the table, but since a very large chunk of Luxembourg’s workforce doesn’t live there the numbers aren’t particularly meaningful (sensible comparisons need to take account of all the  – typical modest-earning –  support services populations need/use where they live).

Productivity (lack of it) and other things

When I was writing some comments last week on Reserve Bank Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand’s speech in Australia I was playing round with some comparative data and stumbled on this chart.

nzau 1

Over the entire period (since 1991) real GDP per capita has grown at exactly the same rate in Australia and New Zealand.   And I haven’t even cherrypicked the starting point: my chart starts when the SNZ quarterly GDP per capita series starts.

Of course, even in 1991 we were materially less well off than Australians, but should we take some comfort from having kept pace over now almost 30 years?  I’d say not.

Here’s why.   Look at the employment rates in the two countries

nzau2

You might be among those who think the more employment the better but (a) working is a cost (an input) to the employee and (b) wouldn’t it have been much preferable, even if you think higher employment rates are some great thing, for it to have resulted in more growth in average per capita income than in the country where employment rates didn’t increase as much?   Australia’s unemployment rate is a bit higher than ours, and that is a mark against them, but it is only a small part of the difference in the employment rates.

And here is a chart that is perhaps even more stark.

NZau3

Across the whole population, the average Australian is now working 5 per cent more hours than in 1991, while the average New Zealander is working 22 per cent more hours.

And yet the bottom line, growth in average real output per capita, is the same.

The difference is productivity – or, more specifically, in our case the lack of anywhere near enough productivity growth.

I’ve got other things on today, so that is it for original content.  But earlier this morning I was rereading my submission to the Reserve Bank consultation on the Governor’s plans to require large increases in bank capital.   There wasn’t anything in it I would now resile from.  I also skimmed through former colleague, and expert in bank capital modelling, Ian Harrison’s papers (here and here) and I doubt he would resile from anything in there.

But what remains striking is how little engagement there has been from the Governor on his proposals.    He has only given four on-the-record speeches this year, not one of which has involved a serious sustained attempt to make his case, let alone engage with alternative perspectives.  The only attempts I’ve seen to respond to alternative perspectives seem to simply involve suggesting that anyone who disagrees with him is somehow bought and paid for, and therefore their views aren’t worthy of serious notice or scrutiny.

At one level, it shouldn’t be surprising, given Orr’s personality and intolerance of challenge or disagreement –  and the fact that, formally at least, he doesn’t have to convince anyone but himself (since he is prosecutor, judge, and jury in his own case, and there are no rights of appeal). But as matter of good governance, in a democratic society, it reflects very poorly on him, on his handpicked senior managers, and on the Bank’s Board and Minister of Finance who are paid to hold the Governor to account but in fact act as if there role is to simply get out of the way and let the Governor get on with it, poor as the process and substance have been, poor as Governor’s conduct increasingly seems to have been.

And so I’ll leave you with some of the unanswered points from my submission

An unbiased observer, looking at the New Zealand economy and financial system, would struggle to find a case for higher minimum capital ratios.   Among the factors such an observer might consider would be:

• The fact that the New Zealand financial system has not experienced a systemic financial crisis for more than hundred years (and to the extent it approximated one in the late 1980s, that was in the idiosyncratic circumstances of an extensive and fast financial liberalisation which left neither market participants nor regulators particularly well-equipped),

• Our major banks – the only ones that might pose any serious economywide risks – come from a country with very much the same historical record as New Zealand,

• Despite very rapid credit growth in the years prior to 2008 (increases in the credit to GDP ratios among the larger in the advanced world, spread across housing, farm, and other business/property lending), and a severe recession in 2008/09 and afterwards, the banking system emerged with low loan losses,

• Since then, banks have not only increased their actual capital ratios (and been required to calculate farm risk-weighted assets more stringently) but have also substantially improved their funding and liquidity positions (under some mix of regulatory and market pressure).

• Over the decade, bank credit growth (relative to GDP) has been pretty subdued and there has been little or no evidence (in, for example, Reserve Bank FSRs) of any serious degradation of lending standards.

• The balance sheets of the large banks remain relatively simple, and there has been no sign (per FSRs) of the sort of financial innovation that might raise significant doubts about the adequacy of existing models.

• In terms of the wider policy environment, government fiscal policy remains very strong, we continue to have a freely-floating exchange rate, and there has been neither legislation nor judicial rulings that will have materially impaired the ability of banks to realise collateral.

• And the Open Bank Resolution option for bank resolution has been more firmly established in the official toolkit (note that if OBR were fully credible then, in the absence of deposit insurance, there would be little case for regulatory minimum capital requirements at all).

• And repeated stress tests –  over a period when the regulator had no incentive to skew the tests to show favourable results –  suggested that even if exposed to extremely severe adverse macro shocks, and associated large price adjustments for houses, farms, and commercial property, not only would no bank fail, but no bank would even drop below current minimum capital requirements.

• Consistent with this experience – also observed in Australia, the home jurisdiction of the parents of our major banks – the major banks operating here continue to have strong credit ratings (consistent with a very low probability of default), and the ratings of the parent banks are even higher.

• There has been no change in the ownership structure of our major banks, or in the implied willingness of the Australian authorities to support the (systemically significant) parents of the New Zealand banks were they ever to get into difficulty.

Add into the mix indications that New Zealand banks CET1 ratios, if calculated on a properly comparable basis, would already be among the highest in the advanced world –  in a macro environment with more scope for stabilisation (floating exchange rate, strong fiscal position, little unhedged foreign currency lending) than in many advanced countries –  and there would be a fairly strong prima facie case for leaving things much as they are.

But the Reserve Bank’s consultative document – and associated material, including speeches and interviews – engages substantively with almost none of this context.

And

It is grossly unsatisfactory that throughout months of consultation the Bank has made no effort to illustrate how its proposals for minimum CET1 ratios and the associated floors around the calculation of risk-weighted assets, compare with those planned by APRA for the Australian banks.

Such an exercise should have been relatively straightforward, especially if the Reserve Bank had done what most New Zealanders might reasonably have expected, and worked closely together with APRA in formulating its proposals.  Of course, New Zealand is a sovereign nation and the Reserve Bank (regrettably) has final decision-making powers in New Zealand but:

• APRA has a considerably deeper pool of expertise, including at the top of the organisation, than the Reserve Bank of New Zealand,

• The nature of the risks in the two economies and markets is quite similar (including similar legal institutions, and similar housing markets),

• If anything there is a case for thinking that APRA minima would be ceilings below which New Zealand requirements for our large banks should be set (since we have the benefit of strong parent banks, and well-regarded supervisor of those banks, whereas the parents  – and parents’ supervisors – themselves are on their own, and we have also chosen to have the OBR as a frontline resolution option),

• For the institutions that might pose potential systemic issues in New Zealand, any substantial increase in capital requirements can reasonably be seen as an attempt to grab group capital for New Zealand.  Why not work these things out together?

The onus should, surely, be on the Reserve Bank of New Zealand to demonstrate – make the case in detail – why the New Zealand subsidiaries of Australian banks should be subject to more onerous capital requirements than the parents, and banking groups as a whole, are subject to.  But not once has the Reserve Bank attempted to make that case.

I ended

New Zealanders deserve better than they have had in the poor process and weak substance that together made up this consultation.

To which one can only add that the repeated reports  –  some of things in public, others less so –  of the way the Governor has handled himself, his own conduct, through this episode are deeply disquieting.  There is little sign of the sort of character and temperament we should expect from a senior public servant exercise so much barely-trammelled power.  The Minister of Finance may declare that he has full confidence in the Governor.  The public should not, and if the Minister continues to sit on the sidelines doing nothing but expressing full confidence that should probably raise more questions about the Minister himself.

Meanwhile, one wonders what our new Australian Secretary to the Treasury makes of her first encounters with national policymaking and advice.

Productivity growth (or lack of it)

In yesterday’s post I included this chart of multi-factor productivity growth data for the 23 advanced countries the OECD produces estimates for.

king mfp

One always has to be a bit careful about MFP estimates, which are only as good as the model (and labour and capital input estimates) used to calculate them.   But when I looked at the OECD labour productivity growth data –  same countries, some period –  the picture was strikingly similar.

GDP phw 23

There is, perhaps, more of a suggestion that productivity growth was already slowing before the events of 2008/09, but still a fairly sharp fall-off in the last decade as well.

I used 10 year average data in these charts because (a) Lord King appeared to be focusing on the pre and post crisis periods (it is now roughly 10 years since the crisis), and (b) because, at least for some countries, there is quite a lot of year-to-year noise, which probably only signifies measurement error.  But out of interest, here is what those lines look like calculated as five year averages.

productivity 0ct 19

There is some sign of a bit of a rebound in productivity growth, especially for MFP.  But (a) most recent periods are probably prone to revisions, and (b) even the latest observations are nowhere near the growth rates being recorded 15 or 20 years ago.

Over the most recent five year periods, New Zealand ranked 4th to last for labour productivity growth, and simply last for MFP growth.    We managed 0.0 per cent average annual growth in labour productivity (on this measure) over the five years. By contrast, the median average annual growth rate for labour productivity over that period for the eight former eastern bloc members of the OECD was 2.3 per cent.

The OECD MFP data begin in 1984.  That just happens to be when the decade of far-reaching economic reform began in New Zealand.     When that reform process started New Zealand was already lagging badly behind the advanced members of the OECD: the OECD doesn’t have MFP levels data, but in terms of real GDP per hour worked, ours in 1984 was only about 75 per cent of the median for the 25 countries for which there is data.   The reform process was supposed be about catching-up again.  (There are a few people who will dispute that last claim, suggesting that it was only really about ending the decline or even slowing it.  But even if some of those individuals really were pessimists even then –  perhaps because they think the reforms were not nearly far-reaching enough –  it was not the way the story was sold, whether by local politicians or international agencies. Here was the Minister of Finance in 1989.)

caygill 1989 expectations.png

So how have we done since 1984?  On MFP growth

MFP since 84

There are (a few) countries that have done worse than us, but not many (and not mostly ohes that represent much to boast about).  You’ll either recall, or have read about, the rank inefficiencies in the New Zealand economy in 1984,  But since then we’ve lost ground relative to the typical other advanced OECD countries.

It is only one estimate.   Labour productivity –  GDP per hour worked –  is less model dependent and thus a bit more reliably estimated.

real GDP phw since 84.png

We do a bit less badly on this measure.  But the median of these advanced countries –  already materially richer/more productive than we were – managed average annual growth of 2.2 per cent per annum over this period while we managed only 1.6 per cent annum.  Over 35 years, that amounts to drifting a long way further behind.   We are now about 65 per cent of the GDP per hour worked of the median country for which the OECD has data for the whole period.

And one last chart: labour productivity growth since 2000 (when there is data for all of them) of the former eastern-bloc countries and New Zealand.

e europe oct 19.png

All of these countries were not-very-market-at-all Communist regimes in 1984 (three weren’t even separate countries).  Three of the eight now have average productivity levels equal to or exceeding New Zealand (and the worst only lags us by about 15 per cent).  But their growth rates are still much faster than ours.

I’m not here to refight the wars over the broad direction of the reforms New Zealand undertook from the mid 80s to the mid 90s. Most of those reforms were sensible –  although I’d nominate three important exceptions.  But the fact remains that, appropriate or not, decades on we have made no systematic progress on convergence and catch-up, and are actually drifting ever further behind.

But is there any real sign either of our major political parties care, let alone be willing to identify and initiate changes that might finally turn things around?  Not that I can see.

There are global problems and failings –  where this post began – and we can’t do anything about fixing those.  But we could –  and should – be doing much better for our own people, starting (as we do) already so far behind.

Not doing very well at all

I heard the Prime Minister on Radio New Zealand this morning running (again) the same spin that seems to go with the job, that somehow if New Zealand’s economic performance is perhaps not all we might hope for, it is at least as good –  better is the typical claim –  than other advanced countries.     Almost always such claims seem to rest exclusively on the rapid and policy-driven population growth New Zealand governments have chosen –  which boost the headline numbers, regardless of whether they leave the average New Zealander better off (in New Zealand’s case, experience increasingly suggests not).

But any meaningful comparison of economic growth across countries needs to adjust for differences in population growth rates.  Per capita statistics aren’t a radical innovation.  They have long existed for exactly that sort of purpose.

It used to be quite hard to get a reasonable sample of countries’ quarterly real GDP numbers.  But the OECD now routinely publishes such numbers.   A few countries seem to be a bit slow at providing the numbers the OECD uses, but when I checked there were 32 OECD countries with quarterly real GDP numbers up to and including the June quarter of 2019 (our most recent data).

This chart shows the latest annual growth rates for those countries, using national agency data for Australia and New Zealand and the OECD data for the rest.  There are two measures: the annual percentage change is the increase from the June quarter 2018 to the June quarter 2019, and the annual average percentage change is the increase from the year to June 2018 to the year to June 2019.   The latter series is a bit less noisy, but also a bit less timely.  As it happens, this time New Zealand’s rank is exactly the same on both measures.

Growth in real pc GDP

There are countries that have done worse than New Zealand: if one broke the group into thirds we’d be close to the bottom third of countries.  But that shouldn’t be much consolation, since we have much lower starting levels of GDP per capita (and GDP per hour worked) than most of the countries to the left of the chart.  The vision was (once) supposed to be that we might once again catch up with them.

Instead, at best we’ve been roughly matching the countries that are much richer and more productive than New Zealand, while the countries that are increasingly similar to us in productive levels rack up really strong growth rates (see seven of the eight countries to the right of the chart –  and the Irish numbers are generally best discounted because of the corporate tax distortions).       Here are the respective productivity levels

east europe GDP phw

Over the last year, these countries averaged growth in real GDP per capita of just over 3.5 per cent per annum.  New Zealand?   About 0.8 per cent.     And yes growth rates are slowing around the world, but over the last three years, those eastern European successful economies averaged 4.3 per cent per capita growth, while New Zealand averaged 1 per cent (in the bottom third of OECD countries).  That is the sort of catch-up that can be achieved.

Are there potential caveats to all this?  In respect of comparisons with the older advanced economies (those now mostly materially richer and more productive than we are), yes.   GDP numbers are revised and with the added imponderable of the new results of the flawed census there will be changes to data over the next few months (SNZ is releasing some new labour market estimates later this morning). But nothing is likely to change the pattern I illustrated the other day

pc GDP growth

Growth in real per capita GDP – never good at the best of times this decade (compared to previous cycles) – has been tailing off, and that conclusion is most unlikely to be changed by any revisions.

Even more certainly, no conceivable revisions are going to change those huge gaps between the growth rates (per capita) of the rapidly emerging eastern European countries –  every single one of which was until now poorer and less productive than New Zealand for at least the last 160 years –  and the pitifully poor growth rates –  per capita GDP or productivity –  managed by New Zealand.  It is a bi-partisan failure, but Labour, Greens, and New Zealand First are now in government.  It is their responsibility, but they seem clueless, careless (ie many just don’t seem to care much if at all), and determined to do whatever possible to try to pretend there isn’t a problem, a failure, and that all is really pretty rosy in the economic garden, and if there are any issues they are all the fault of others.

The problem, the failure, starts at the top, with a Prime Minister and Minister of Finance who continue to simply repeat the spin, which bears little or no relation to the dismal reality of New Zealand’s multi-decade productivity underperformance.  But they are aided and abetted by the Governor of the Reserve Bank, who simply makes things up (he was yesterday out claiming that “The New Zealand economy has proved resilient through a period of weakening global growth and heightened global uncertainty”) and the situation won’t be helped by a Secretary to the Treasury who knows almost nothing about New Zealand or about managing a national economy.  Our economic and political institutions, and their key individuals, are failing us.  New Zealanders –  not those key decisionmakers and advisers –  pay the price of failure.

The economic plan that wasn’t

I’m not much into the notion of “economic plans” –  all too redolent of Communist states, known mostly for their consistently underwhelming economic performance.  But at least most of those old “plans” purported only to be five-year plans.  By contrast, earlier this week the current New Zealand government  –  with one year left of its three year term –  released a 30-year “Economic Plan”.    It was released under the signatures of Grant Robertson, Minister of Finance, who has shown no sign of understanding or caring much about New Zealand’s economic challenges, and Phil Twyford, now Minister for Economic Development, but best known for Kiwibuild.

I guess the government must have known there wasn’t much there.  It was, after all, released –  to little fanfare –  while the media were all concentrating on the Prime Minister’s progess in New York.

It is sold this way

The Government’s Economic Plan is set in the context  of our wellbeing agenda and is designed to build a  more productive, sustainable and inclusive economy  to improve the wellbeing and living standards of  all New Zealanders.

All lines and words we’ve heard endlessly now for two years.   The introduction goes on

The Plan identifies eight key shifts and policy action related to each shift that will tackle the long-term challenges the New Zealand economy is facing. They signal our goal to balance outcomes across financial, human, natural and social capital, and will act as an overarching guide for government departments designing economic policy  [er…don’t elected government’s set economic policy, not government departments?]

These shifts and initiatives will deliver on the four economic priorities in Our Plan: to grow and share  New Zealand’s prosperity, support thriving and sustainable regions, transition to a clean, green and carbon neutral New Zealand and deliver responsible governance with a broader measure of success.

New Zealand has a unique opportunity to build on our strengths, and use these to lead the world on standing up to the economic challenges of the next 30 years, turning issues like climate change and the technological revolution into economic opportunities.

You might have thought that a good place to start would be recognising that we’ve trailed the advanced world for 70 years now, lagging behind on the productivity growth that underpins material standards of living and many other choices, rather than making idle and empty claims about “leading the world” in the next thirty.

Instead, there is the same complacency with which Labour went into the last election

New Zealand is recognised as being one of the best places in the world to live. Wellbeing is high for New Zealanders overall, but the benefits of economic growth have been unevenly distributed.

Nothing wrong with the growth performance really; just a matter of sharing the cake differently.

In fact, they sort of know that isn’t true. Get 10 pages into a glossy 30 page document and you do finally find this

Our productivity challenge is complex and long-standing.

But with no sign that they have any narrative explaining how we found ourselves in this position, or how the grab-bag of initiatives (there were 76 on one table –  including Kiwibuild) they list might make a sustained and significant difference.  (All governments for decades having had long lists – the previous government’s Business Growth Agenda as only the most recent, ineffectual, example.)

economic plan.png

In fact, top of the list of their proposed ways to see economywide productivity lift are yet more plans

Industry Transformation Plans – adding value to  key sectors of our economy and leveraging new opportunities.

Substance-lite.

The standard cliches are trotted out among the glossy photos

New Zealand is a trading nation and we want all  New Zealanders to benefit from trade. We are building stronger international connections so that Kiwi businesses get greater access to markets around the world – not just for goods, services and investments, but also for people and ideas. At the same time, we are supporting businesses to get the most from trade and grow the value and reach of our exports.

And yet, foreign trade (exports and imports) as a share of GDP is less now than it was at the start of the century, but there is no hint that the government (or its advisers) understand why.  No mention of the real exchange rate in the entire document.

And it sort of goes downhill from there.  Predictably, corporate welfare –  aka the Provincial Growth Fund –  tops the list of things that are going to make a favourable long-term difference to regional economies.    The top two initiatives that are supposed to “enable a step change for Maori and Pacific economies” (whatever they are) are

Te Arawhiti – Office for Māori Crown Relations – fostering strong, ongoing and effective relationships with Māori across Government.

Government procurement – working to provide opportunities for Māori and Pacific New Zealand businesses to access contracts from the $41 billion we spend each year in Government procurement.

Both might be sensible steps in their own rights, but they simply aren’t commensurate with the challenge.

And there are old, and still silly, lines

We know that New Zealand’s high house prices have diverted capital into the housing market and away from more productive uses. We need to redirect this capital to help businesses to innovate, invest in new technology and pursue growth opportunities.

I’m not sure how many times one needs to point it out but, given the the population, isn’t the conventional understanding that too few houses have been built, not too many?  More real resources –  on the government’s own original plans (Kiwibuild anyone?) – were supposed to be encouraged towards house-building.  And not a mention of actually getting house prices down again.

In fairness, one might acknowledge that the first item on their housing/productivity page sounds okay

Urban Growth Agenda and RMA reform – working to get our urban markets working so they can respond to growth, improve urban land affordability, and support thriving communities.

The problem is that it sounded good two or three years ago, buried deep in the Labour Party manifesto, and it still does.  But there has been almost no action so far, and no indication in market prices (eg of urban land) to suggest anyone much believes the government will act in ways that make a meaningful difference.

And it all ends with three pages of alternative “wellbeing indicators”, continuing to distract attention away from the decades-long failure on productivity.

There just isn’t much there. And nothing at all, for example, about the inevitable tensions (between, say, zero carbon goals and vague aspirations –  and that is all they are – to higher sustained productivity growth).  But, as ever, MBIE does well with the glossy heartwarming photos (from the family playing cricket on the beach at Sumner onwards).

But the Prime Minister must have wanted to suggest there was something there.   The Herald managed to secure an op-ed from her about the plan, as part of their “Mood of the Boardroom” publication.  Perhaps she didn’t choose the title but it (“My hope: a rising tide that will lift all boats”) didn’t suggest much agency, or hence much responsibility and accountability.

It was pretty vacuous piece, but as ever with her you get the sense that (a) she is more interested in sharing the pie that creating a climate conducive to rapid growth in the size of the (per capita) pie, and (b) that she has only a very limited understanding of the economic issues.  That mightn’t matter much if she had a strong team of senior ministers who did. But there is little or no evidence of that.

A good chunk of the article was devoted to make-believe stuff about just how well the economy is doing at present. Perhaps, knowing no better, she takes lessons from the creativity around the facts on display from the Governor of the Reserve Bank?  She seems unaware that growth has been slowing (from never particularly fast rates), that leading indicators are poor, that productivity growth is almost non-existent, and she continues to parrot lines about how good our growth rates by international standards in ways that simply take no account of the rapid population growth rates here (just this week revealed by SNZ to have been even faster than they previously estimated).  For someone focused on “wellbeing”, you might suppose that recognising that per capita GDP growth counts a lot more than the headline number would be a good first step.  But I guess not.

The underwhelming text continues

We need to invest in infrastructure, because it’s the springboard for future growth. This Government is investing record amounts in hospital and school building programmes, alongside large investments in transport safety, regional roads and public transport

Perhaps you will agree with her on the first sentence (although it is striking how few of the touted projects seem to pass robust cost-benefit assessments), but whatever the merits of building more hospitals and schools those aren’t the sorts of infrastructures likely to make much difference to our woeful productivity performance (there might be other good reasons for such spending).  Same goes for spending on “transport safety” –  it isn’t exactly decongesting bottlenecks is it?  And if you went for congestion pricing, existing infrastructures could be used much more efficiently.

And so it goes on.  What about housing?

We’ll also keep tackling the long-term challenge in housing. Our economy works for everyone only when everyone has a warm, dry home, and a decent standard of living.

Well, no.  A strongly-performing economy helps ensure/enable widely-spread decent standards of living.    And her policy solutions are all about symptoms not causes

That’s why we’ve stopped the state house sell-off, stopped offshore speculators from driving up house prices, and built over 2000 state houses in the last year.

and

Business leaders agree that growth in New Zealand has been predicated too much on capital returns, and not enough on productive investment. To build an economy that works for all of us, we need to focus on productivity and innovation, especially through small businesses.

“Capital returns” sound like good things –  good business make money for their owners –  but I’m guessing she was trying to suggest something about capital gains on property. Except that no serious economic analysis really supports that sort of story –  consumption as a share of GDP, for example, not having changed much for decades.  And where she gets the bit about small businesses being particularly important, goodness only knows. I suppose it sounded good.

The vacuity goes on, limited only by the length of the column.  She talks about how “we’ve always been an exporting economy” and having an “ambitious trade policy” but seems to have no idea that exports/imports as a share of GDP are (a) shrinking, and (b) small for a country our size, and somehow thinks that reforming the polytech sector is going to revitalise our services exports.  Well, maybe…..

I don’t suppose Prime Ministers write this sort of nonsense themselves, but capable governments, really interested in reversing the decades of underperformance, would have a lot more substance to put in the mouths of their leaders.  And capable leaders, with a serious understanding of the issues and imperatives, would simply demand much better.

I’ve shown this old cartoon before.

richardson

It ran a generation ago now.

For some years, I had it pinned to the wall in my office –  the sad procession of successive Ministers of Finance who for decades (this cartoon implies back to the 1950s) had promised that New Zealand’s decline would be reversed (made worse in this case in that Ruth Richardson must have said something along these lines in February 1991, just as the severe recession of that year was taking hold).      Since then, we’ve had Bill Birch, Winston Peters, Bill English, Michael Cullen, and Bill English again, and although we’ve had plenty of cyclical ups and downs, never at any time have we looked like successfully or sustainably reversing our relative economic decline.   It saddens me every time I look at this cartoon –  so many decades, so much failure.

And nothing about Jacinda Ardern or Grant Robertson suggests we’ll manage any better if their policies were adopted than we have for the last 30 or 60 years.

 

 

Some IMF modelling on NZ

Earlier in the week I wrote about the IMF’s less-than-impressive Article IV report on New Zealand’s economy and economic policy.   As part of the bundle of documents released last Saturday there was the Selected Issues paper – a collection of some supporting research/analysis undertaken by Fund staff to help underpin the Article IV report and Fund surveillance of New Zealand more generally.

On this occasion, there are three such papers.  The one that caught my eye was the first: a modelling exercise under the title

TRADE, NET MIGRATION AND AGRICULTURE: INTERACTIONS BETWEEN EXTERNAL RISKS AND THE NEW ZEALAND ECONOMY

In this paper staff took a Fund model carefully calibrated to capture key features of the New Zealand economy and used it in conjunction with their global model to look at several possible shocks New Zealand might face over the coming years.    There is a piece on possible agricultural shocks (pp19-21) which may interest some readers, but my focus was mostly on the other shocks they studied:

  • a significant growth slowdown in the People’s Republic of China,
  • a significant growth slowdown in Australia, and
  • and a significant (exogenous to New Zealand) change in net migration from (a) the PRC, and (b) separately, from Australia.

They illustrate the estimated transitional effects and report the model estimates for the long-term steady state effects.

The PRC growth shock involves (mainly) materially slower productivity in China, such that 10 years hence PRC GDP is 11.9 per cent lower than the (WEO forecast) baseline.  You’ll have heard New Zealand politicians and other lackeys parrot lines about how New Zealand depends heavily on the PRC for its prosperity etc.  The IMF modellers are having none of it.  Here are the New Zealand economy responses (quarters along the horizontal axis).

sel issues 1.png

On this model, a 12 per cent lower level of GDP in China –  largest trading partner, first or second largest economy in the world –  leaves New Zealand…….every so slightly better off in the long run (but treat that as basically zero).  Oh well, never mind…..I don’t suppose it will stop the lackeys doing their thing, but it is a helpful reminder that, to a first approximation, countries make their own prosperity.

The scenario of an adverse growth shock in Australia is of similar magnitude (Australia’s GDP is 9.3 per cent lower than otherwise in the long-term.  I won’t clutter up the post with the same set of charts for the Australia shock, but suffice to say that the bottom-line results aren’t that different.  This time, a 9.3 per cent sustained fall in GDP in the economy that is our second largest trading partner and largest (stock) source of foreign investment is estimated to reduce New Zealand long-run GDP, but by only 0.03 per cent.  I’d treat that as zero as well.  In both cases, a lower real exchange rate is part of the way the New Zealand economy adjusts, so consumption here is a touch lower (it is relatively more expensive) but overall real incomes generated in New Zealand (GDP) are all but unchanged.

That was interesting, but not really that surprising (in truth, even I might have expected a slightly larger adverse effect).   It was the migration shocks, and the Fund’s modelling of those, which should really garner more interest and scrutiny.  Note that these results have already had bureaucratic scrutiny: the paper notes that

The chapter benefited from valuable comments by the Treasury of New Zealand and participants at a joint Treasury and Reserve Bank of New Zealand seminar.

Both institutions have some smart and critical people.

Here is the shock re PRC immigration

Additional Net Migration Effect in New Zealand. There are permanently fewer migrants to New Zealand from China. There is a 0.1 percent reduction in labor force growth for 10 years in New Zealand, so that the New Zealand population is permanently 1.0 percent lower.

This shock is added to the PRC growth slowdown shock illustrated earlier.  As the Fund’s model is calibrated, these are the results.  The additional effect of the migration shock is the difference between the two lines in each panel.

sel issues 2

The Fund writes these results up as “a bad thing”

The fall in net migration would exacerbate the negative spillovers to New Zealand
from China. Real GDP would now be 0.7 percent lower than baseline in the long term.

Which is true, of course, on their model.  But, strangely, not once in the entire paper do they mention per capita GDP.  The population in the long-run is 1 per cent lower, but GDP is only 0.7 per cent lower, implying that GDP per capita is 0.3 per cent higher in this “Chinese migration shock” scenario than in the baseline scenario.  That sounds like a good thing, for New Zealanders, not a bad thing, at least in the longer-term.  (Since labour input and GDP both fall by the same amount, it doesn’t look as if this model can deal with endogeous changes in productivity).  For what it is worth, real wages in New Zealand are also higher in this scenario.)

What about the Australian net migration shock?

Additional Net Migration Effect in New Zealand. There are permanently more migrants to New Zealand from Australia. There is a 0.26 percent increase in labor force growth for 10 years in New Zealand, so that the New Zealand population is permanently 2.6 percent higher.

Again, this shock is on top of the sustained slowdown in Australian growth modelled earlier (and thus is probably best thought of as a reduction in the net outflow of New Zealanders to Australia, the income gap having changed a bit in our favour).   Here is the chart of those results.

sel issues 3.png

In sum, the population is 2.6 per cent higher in the long-run and GDP is 2 per cent higher.   The Fund again spins this as a positive story (it appears under the heading “How Net Migration Could Improve Outcomes for New Zealand”) but again completely overlook the per capita story.  In this scenario, real GDP per capita is 0.6 per cent lower than in the baseline.  New Zealanders are poorer (and in the long-run real wages in New Zealand are lower).  It isn’t even as if there is much of a short-term vs long-term story (the GDP effects just build pretty steadily over the 10 year horizon).

These effects become large if you apply them to the scale of the non-citizen migration we’ve had in New Zealand in recent decades.  Cumulatively, they would not be out of line with the observed slippage in New Zealand productivity relative to other advanced countries over that period.

So the headline out of this particular paper should really be “additional migration makes New Zealanders poorer in the long-run, at least according to IMF modelling”, not stuff about how helpful immigration is.  A focus on GDP might make sense if you are building an army (raw numbers matter) or to silly comparisons politicians make.  Other people know that per capita GDP is much the more important variable, relevant to material living standards etc.  On its better days I’m sure the IMF knows that too.

In a way, even in their report on New Zealand the IMF shows glimpses of recognising that high rates of immigration might not be so good for New Zealand (whatever the possible benefits in some other places).  Both in the main Article IV document and in the Selected Issues paper “a remote location” comes first in the list of factors the Fund identifies as constraining New Zealand productivity.  Combine that glimmer of recognition (and I could also recommend to them this piece) with their own published model results suggesting that, at the margin, immigration makes New Zealanders poorer –  recall that this model is calibrated by the Fund to capture what they see as key features of the New Zealand economy) –  and it might have pointed disinterested observers towards suggesting to New Zealand governments that they consider rethinking their enthusiasm for such high (globally unusual) rates of immigration to a relatively unpropitious location.   Instead of which, the Fund (like the OECD) tends to act as cheerleaders for New Zealand immigration policy.

The IMF, of course, is not a disinterested observer.   It knows little distinctive about New Zealand – and New Zealand’s productivity performance has long been an awkwardness, even a bit of an embarrassment, for the international economic agencies.  And it is a global champion of the idea that immigration is good and more immigration is better.  If you think that an unfair characterisation, check out this post (and this more NZ focused) where I unpicked parts of an official IMF paper which purported to show that

If this model was truly well-specified and catching something structural it seems to be saying that if 20 per cent of France’s population moved to Britain and 20 per cent of Britain’s population moved to France (which would give both countries migrant population shares similar to Australia’s), real GDP per capita in both countries would rise by around 40 per cent in the long term.  Denmark and Finland could close most of the GDP per capita gap to oil-rich Norway simply by making the same sort of swap.    It simply doesn’t ring true –  and these for hypothetical migrations involving populations that are more educated, and more attuned to market economies and their institutions, than the typical migrant to advanced countries.

What do I actually make of the latest IMF paper?  Not that much to be honest.  I’m sure the authors could probably play around with their model – it is calibrated rather than estimated –  to produce results more suitable to the causes of their masters in Washington.  And since productivity isn’t affected, one way or another, by immigration in this model, I’m certainly not attempting to suggest that these results are somehow reflective of the sorts of channels and models I’ve been championing as central to the New Zealand story.

But when even the champions of high immigration to New Zealand acknowledge that there is not much (any?) New Zealand specific research showing that high rates of immigration to New Zealand, in New Zealand’s specific circumstances (eg remoteness, resource endowments, institutions etc) has been beneficial to New Zealanders over recent decades, it should be a little uncomfortable for the officials and politicians who champion the status quo that one of the leading internation economic agencies, pretty sympathetic to their approach, nevertheless (and without really trying) manage to produce research once again casting doubt on whether on this central tool of economic policy –  probably the biggest structural intervention our governments have done over the last 25 years –  is really working for New Zealanders.

Perhaps someone might ask the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition why they act as if they are so convinced that on this count the IMF is wrong.  (Oh, and they might stop parroting the “our prosperity depends on China” line too.  IMF modelling confirms (common sense) that it simply doesn’t.)