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.)

 

Productivity growth across countries across time

This tweet caught my eye this morning.

The chart is from the latest weekly column from Martin Wolf, the economics columnist for the Financial Times.   It is a sobering reminder of what has been happening among economies rather nearer the frontier: productivity growth recently isn’t what it once was (even if the 50s and 60s are hardly representative historical decades).

But, of course, my main interest is in New Zealand.  And for OECD countries I prefer to use OECD data (which go back only to 1970).    Here is what a similar version of the chart above looks like using OECD data and adding Australia, Canada and New Zealand.   As with the chart above, I’ve ordered the countries from high to low based on average productivity growth in the most recent period (in this case, the last five years).

Real GDP phw OECD

In that most recent period (and, actually, for this decade as a whole) France has had the fastest productivity growth –  not something I’d have guessed –  and New Zealand brings up last place.  It isn’t that the green bar is missing for New Zealand, just that the average annual growth rate on this measure was 0.0 per cent. (Using my preferred measure of labour productivity growth, updated to include this morning’s release we do a little better for the last five years –  we come second to last (ahead of Italy) instead.)

And, of course, the pattern for New Zealand is a little different because we had that truly dreadful decade in the 1970s, when our productivity growth was clearly the worst in the entire OECD.

But here is how we’ve done simply relative to the G7 group as a whole.

NZ and G7 gdp phw

In not a single period has our productivity growth rate matched that of the G7 grouping as a whole.  We came close in the 1980s, but couldn’t match those leading industrial countries even then.  (And for the most recent period that conclusion holds even if use my preferred measure of New Zealand labour productivity.)   And whereas back in 1970, the level of labour productivity in New Zealand was very similar to that for the OECD as a whole, those growth differences cumulate, and now the G7 group has labour productivity just over 50 per cent higher than that in New Zealand.

Is something better possible?   Well, there is a loose relationship suggesting (as one might expect) that countries that had a lower starting level of labour productivity were also those with relatively faster productivity growth in recent years.  Catch-up can and does occur.   There were 10 OECD countries –  more than a quarter of the membership –  which had faster productivity growth than France over the last five years, often materially faster.    All of them were small.

That could have been New Zealand too –  after all, we now start so far behind the leading bunch –  but policy choices by successive governments (much the same regardless of which party occupies the 9th floor of the Beehive) meant it wasn’t so, and left us vying with places like Italy, Portugal and Greece (even the UK) for the unwanted poor performer award.

 

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.