Making short-term foreign labour more readily available

There were, and still are, people who thought Labour and New Zealand First went into the last election campaigning on policies to materially and sustainably reduce the very high rates of non-citizen immigration to New Zealand.  (There were no such doubts about the Greens: after James Shaw in 2016 gave a fairly thoughtful and moderate speech on the issue there was a great backlash from his own supporters and he had to recant and do a very public form of penance.)

But what of Labour and New Zealand First?  It seems that under Andrew Little Labour had become quite concerned about immigration and thought there were votes in suggesting that “something should be done”.   But as I pointed out when their 2017 immigration policy specifics were released, whatever impression they wanted to create, any measures they were proposing would have reduced the net inflow for one year only.  Some of those proposals had some merit in their own right, but they were playing at the margin, while allowing Labour to associate itself with numbers of a 25000-30000 reduction in net migration.   Labour is quite correct to claim that they never set that as a target (it was a forecast, about what difference they thought their proposals would make), but they never owned up to the fact that any reduction would be one-off, not permanent.     Either way, even before the election –  after the change of leadership –  they were backing away from even their own published policy (checking old emails, I found one from a week out from the election in which a senior and well-connected journalist told me that Ardern and Lees-Galloway had taken a conscious decision to downplay the issue).

As for New Zealand First, there was occasional talk of reducing net migration to 10000 to 15000 per annum but (a) it wasn’t in their immigration policy, and (b) not much specific was.  Both parties seemed to want to create the impression that they would “do something” (note that National had actually “done something” –  albeit fairly modest – that year) without actually offering much in the way of specific commitments.  NZ First, of course, has 25+ years of form in that respect.    I guess not many voters read the specifics of manifestos (although media should) and so it is hard to have much sympathy for the parties when people now look at what the government is (and isn’t) doing and suggest that it doesn’t really square with the impression they were happy to create pre-election.

At times, it is hard to know quite what they are doing.   Actual residence visa approvals for the year to August were 34863, the lowest annual rate this century.   But that isn’t supported by any high-level policy changes and from all the accounts of massive backlogs of applications at MBIE –  having reduced its processing capacity –  it isn’t clear that it is deliberate (and if it is deliberate, it is a pretty callous way to do things, leaving applicants hanging uncertainly with indefinite delays).  And on the other hand, the number of Essential Skills visas approved in the year to August was a record high, and about twice as many as were being approved five or six years ago.  On MBIE’s figures there are almost 200000 people here with short-term work visas (consistent with that OECD comment that New Zealand has one of the highest –  perhaps the highest –  shares of short-term foreign workers of any OECD country).

But yesterday we got some specifics from the government in the form of a new policy on temporary work visas.  In thinking and writing about New Zealand immigration policy, my focus is on the residence approval programme –  which is what drives the longer-term contribution of immigration to population growth –  rather than the shorter-term visa programmes.  But reading through what the government released yesterday, it was hard not to call it a triumph for the business community (short-term) at the expense of New Zealanders (those two aren’t necessarily in conflict of course, it is just that there is no evidence that New Zealand’s liberal immigration policies have done New Zealanders any good).  As the Newsroom article this morning puts it

As soon as the embargo lifted on the Immigration Minister’s announcement on Tuesday, positive press releases flooded in from industry associations whose employers rely on imported labour, including Federated Farmers, Horticulture NZ, Business NZ and New Zealand Aged Care Association.

They see it as a win for employers who will be able to employ overseas workers with greater ease, after passing the initial tests.

Here is the overview document the government published.

Several things struck me.

First, the government and its advisers appear to have little use for economics (yes, some of you may think that to their credit),  What do I have in mind?     There was this, for example, the very first bullet point in the entire document

Ensure that temporary foreign workers are only recruited for genuine shortages, and that employers across New Zealand can access the skills and labour they need;

When there are incipient shortages of tomatoes or lettuces (storms etc) or even houses, the price goes up.   The market then more or less clears and in most cases at the new prevailing prices there are no “genuine shortages”, rather supply and demand adjust to the signal in the price. We see that this week in global oil markets.

But neither central planners in MBIE nor their political masters –  nor much of the business community, when it comes to inputs –  are keen on that sort of approach.  They prefer a model in which wages don’t rise much because whenever there is an incipient shortage –  which would otherwise trigger wage rises –  the employer can find another migrant worker.   A good deal for firms if they get the system rigged in their favour like that, and compromising, in that any firm that had qualms about whether this was really right, couldn’t really take a stand and refuse to get involved or they really would be rendered less competitive than other firms in their sector.

And there was this in a section on “Why the government is making these changes”

The Government is committed to ensuring that regions are able to get the workers they need to fill critical skill shortages, particularly during a time of low unemployment.

Where they show no sign of realising that –  as economists in New Zealand have known for decades – increased immigration has the short-term effect (perhaps lasting several years) of adding more to demand (including demand for labour) than to supply, thus exacerbating capacity pressures in aggregate, not relieving them.   Yes, an individual firm in a sector heavily reliant on immigrant labour might be made better off, but across the whole economy it is no fix at all.  (And if the intuition of this point isn’t obvious, fortunately we mostly don’t import dirt-poor illegals living 20 to a house, so new immigrant workers need houses, shops, offices, schools, roads etc much as you or I do, and building all those things takes real resources – including labour.)

There is a strange mix of central planner tendences and genuine liberalisation at work in the package.  I guess the government would defend that on the grounds of a strong central government hand around lower-paid migrants and more liberalisation for somewhat higher paid roles (the spin is about “highly paid” or “very highly paid” jobs, but that isn’t really so at all).  On the central planner side, there were things like this

The recently announced Regional Skills Leadership Groups will play a key role in informing government and regional responses to local labour market needs. Each Regional Skills Leadership Group will develop a labour market plan for its region to identify the availability of skills and labour in their region and any gaps that need to be addressed to help drive the region’s economic growth.

Or one could use market price signals and the resulting internal resource flows.  But the government believes bureaucrats and local worthies (business leaders with their own interests to advance?) will do it so much better.

Still on the central planner side, industries that are heavily reliant on migrant labour are to be subjected “Sector Agreements”

Sector Agreements will be negotiated with sectors that have a high reliance on temporary foreign workers (especially in lower-paid occupations). Employers who are recruiting foreign workers for occupations covered by a Sector Agreement will be required to comply with the agreement. Sector Agreements will support facilitated access to foreign workers to meet shortages in the short term by making this a more certain and lower-cost process. In exchange, the sector will be required to make commitments and demonstrate progress towards placing a greater share of New Zealanders into jobs in the sector and reducing the sector’s reliance on temporary foreign workers over time.

But there is a great deal of time-inconsistency about all this.  In the short-term, rest homes, road freight etc, will get “more certain and lower cost” access to migrant workers, and yet the sectors will supposedly be signing up to commitments to reduce future reliance on such workers. It will be interesting to see the details of the first such agreements (due mid-2020) but count me sceptical about whether any government will be willing to follow through and actually insist on reduced reliance on temporary foreign workers, having initially made them even easier to get.  All those lobbies will be moaning and complaining five years hence just as they are now.    Much better to put in place some clear and graduated price signals now.

The other area of central planners’ conceit in the document is the distinction between “the regions” and five of the six largest cities (for some reason Tauranga misses out on promotion to big boy status).  This continues the incoherence of the previous government’s approach, offering more residency points for jobs outside the big cities, in the process (almost as a matter of arithmetic) lowering the average quality of the people given residence visas.

Under yesterday’s package

The requirement to undertake a labour market test will be removed entirely for employers in the regions (outside the major cities) seeking to employ foreign workers who will be paid above the median wage. This gives open access to employers in the regions recruiting for jobs paying above the median wage. This means there is no need for skill shortages lists in the regions and the skill shortages lists will only exist for the five following cities – Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. If a job in a city is on that city’s skills shortage list there will be no labour market test; if it is not on the list then there will be a labour market test (that is, the employer must advertise the job with the pay rate).

There is no attempt at a justification for this differentiation between, say, Tauranga and Hamilton, or Queenstown and Dunedin, or even between Kawerau and Auckland.   It simply continues the planner mentality –  even if we might count getting rid of (bureacrat-determined) “skill shortage lists” in some places as a modest gain in its own right.

And from a Labour-led government –  supposedly focused on “the workers”(especially less well-off), surely it evokes a hollow laugh when they release documents talking of people earning $52000 a year as “highly-paid”.      Such has been the increase in the minimum wage over recent years –  no relationship at all to productivity gains –  that Labour now class as “highly paid” anyone earning only 40 per cent above the minimum wage.

The final bit of the package that caught my eye was this

The Government will reinstate the ability for lower-paid foreign workers to support their partner and children to come to New Zealand for the length of their visa. This was restricted in 2017. The foreign worker will continue to need to meet a minimum income threshold, the purpose of which is to ensure that their income is sufficient to support themselves and their family while in New Zealand.

….Dependent children of a lower-paid worker will have access to primary and secondary education as subsidised domestic students. They will only be able to access tertiary education as full fee-paying international students.

I guess we should be thankful for small mercies re that final sentence.  But really…..the government makes it “more certain and lower-cost” to bring in relatively low-paid migrant workers, and then –  even if there were real economic gains from that particular “trade” –  dramatically erodes those possibilities by allowing such (supposedly) temporary workers to bring spouses and children.   Given the failure of the government to anything serious about fixing the urban land and housing market, that will put further indirect pressure on the housing market (and associated infrastructure) and the (substantial) fiscal cost of any school education for the children of such workers has to be set against the (inevitably modest, in a low-skilled worker) wider economic benefits to New Zealand of the parent being able to work here.

You can see some elements of sense in some of what the government is doing in elements of this package.  Perhaps the “sector agreements” are really well-intentioned, even if they seem most likely to be ineffectual over time in reducing the dependence on these sectors on modestly-paid modestly-skilled short-term foreign workers.    And, in principle, the absence of a “labour market test” for really highly paid or specialist positions makes quite a lot of sense.  But, even in this struggling economy, it is a sick and sad joke to talk of pay rates in excess of $52000 as “highly paid”.  More importantly, there is nothing in the system designed to set a financial incentive for firms to employ locals.

I continue to champion my own model, which I’ve run in various previous speeches and posts.   For work visas, at all levels of skill, in all regions, I would apply something like the following model

Institute work visa provisions that are:

a. Capped in length of time (a single maximum term of three years, with at least a year overseas before any return on a subsequent work visa).

b. Subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum or 20 per cent of the employee’s annual income (whichever is greater).

Doing so would largely get officials completely out of the approvals process (although not from enforcement), would treat all regions equally, and would provide a strong –  and transparent –  incentive to hire (and develop) locals, and bid up wages for locals, where at all possible, while providing easier access (than any government has allowed) where a short-term foreign worker may really be necessary in the short-term.   And the fee would ensure that even if there were no other benefits to New Zealanders as a whole, at least the public finances would benefit directly.

The much bigger issue, of course, is the residence approvals programme.  The government is supposed to be having announcements on that front before the end of the year,

 

Against values tests

New Zealand First’s conference over the weekend apparently supported some form of values test for immigrants.  It has been ACT Party policy too –  perhaps one of the few things the two parties (one strongly pro-immigration, one ostensibly a bit sceptical) actually agree on.

Such provisions aren’t unknown: Australia has its Australian Values Statement , a pretty watered-down thing that newcomers have to subscribe to. It isn’t clear that doing so makes any useful difference at all.    As I noted in an earlier post

My concerns are about two, perhaps opposing, risks.  The first is that any values statement becomes a lowest common denominator statement as to be totally meaningless.  The second is that the wording of any values statement –  if taken seriously –  would be hotly and continuously contested, as culture wars ebbed and flowed. 

Here, any serious suggestion of a values test just seems to offer another avenue for fighting the culture wars, in ways that would – among other things – end up delegitimising the deeply held views of many New Zealanders (native and non).   According to Newsroom’s account of the New Zealand First proposal

The bill would legally mandate new migrants and refugees to respect sexual equality, “all legal sexual preferences”, religious rights, and that alcohol was a legal substance that could not be campaigned against.

I certainly don’t respect “all legal sexual preferences”, let alone the acting out of those “preferences”.   And, on the other hand, the public health academics at Otago seem to lament that alcohol is legal.  More generally, for 100 years or so –  ending only 30 years ago –  we used to have a referendum every three years at which one of the options was Prohibition.   Kate Sheppard and the WCTU campaigned for women’s suffrage partly as a means to the desired end of Prohibition.     It is a long time ago now, but I suspect I probably voted for prohibition myself, and my (New Zealand born) father was a leading figure in the Temperance Alliance, which campaigned for it.    And what of “sexual equality”?  Who knows precisely what it is meant to mean here –  or in the Australian Values Statement –  but perhaps it means faithful Catholics would be banned from migrating to New Zealand because they don’t believe a woman can (from the nature of things) serve as a priest?    I don’t suppose that is what NZ First will mean, but some Green MPs might think that sort of restriction was rather appealing.

And does anyone suppose that if such a values test was established in New Zealand it wouldn’t include something about the Treaty of Waitangi, and something rather heavily loaded towards an interpretation that would have been unrecognisable 50 years ago.  Perhaps migrants would be required to undertake to “respect” the Treaty, whatever that means, or something that went even beyond that.   Or that if a values test was imposed by the current government it wouldn’t be full of rhetoric about the environment, climate change, and other left-wing priorities.

I dealt with this in an earlier post when, a couple of years ago, ACT was championing its proposed values test.

And where would it stop?  I had a quick look this morning at statements I could find in which each of the three largest political parties describe their values.  There was some overlap (and the particular Labour Party document I found had three of four pages of text, while the Greens and National Party had quite short lists), but there were quite a few substantial differences.  Which is what one might expect: a significant part of political debate is the contest of ideas and values, particularly in an era of cultural transition (eg secularization, in which culture and religion are no longer intrinsically interwoven).

I might find the references to loyalty to the sovereign, and limited government, in the National Party’s list appealing.    Many other New Zealanders wouldn’t.   “Respect the planet” might be something central to a Green view on things, but to me the concept of respecting an inanimate object just seems weird.  And even though there was serious uncertainty about the consequences of doing so, I’m glad our ancestors took decisive action to confront Hitler, rather than “take the path of caution”.

As far as I can see, none of the values statement (yet) talk of the rights of the unborn, or transgender rights to bathrooms –  to take just a couple of issues that have convulsed American debate.

Perhaps we might get agreement on process issues –  parliamentary sovereignty, a universal franchise, the rule of law etc –  but even on process it might be thin pickings.  There are probably plenty of supporters here of moving to a written constitution, and others who still hanker for a return to FPP.  In the end, is there genuine common ground on very much at all, other perhaps than that change should occur non-violently?  We can all agree that individuals do and should have rights, and probably all agree that in some circumstances the needs/interests of the “community” override those individual rights.  But where that boundary is, and how it should shift, is the intrinsic stuff of politics.  We can’t agree among ourselves, so what is there for immigrants to sign up to, other than today’s (temporary) shifting majority.  I was amused, for example, to read the Prime Minister’s [John Key] rewriting of history, in answering the values question, noting that for him it included “understanding that New Zealand’s always been a tolerant society”.   Really?  To name just one low-key example, our treatment of conscientious objectors during the two World Wars meets no reasonable definition of “tolerant”.

And yet the people who call for migrants to sign values statements do capture a fair point.  When large numbers of people are allowed by our governments to come and live in New Zealand they have the potential to change our society.  People are not just bloodless economic units –  dessicated calculating machines.  They bring their own attitudes and values, and while the new arrivals are likely to be changed by living here so –  if the numbers are large enough – is our society.  One need only think of European migration to New Zealand over the last 200 years –  we their descendants may be changed by living here rather than in, say, the United Kingdom, but the similarities with modern Britain are probably greater than those with pre-1840 Maori society.  The point is not that modern New Zealand is better or worse for those migrants (and their values/attitudes/technologies), but that the fact of change is inescapable and largely irreversible.  Seeking that sort of change is itself a political act.

Which is one of a number of reasons why I’m skeptical that –  even if there were material economic benefits to residents of the recipient countries – large scale immigration programmes are normally a legitimate role of government at all.  We’ll always have some immigration.  New Zealanders travel, and some will meet and marry foreigners.  Often enough the new couple will want to settle here.  And our humanitarian impulses will, rightly, drive us to take some refugees.  But in neither case –  both on generally quite a small scale – do we grant permission to reside here with a goal of changing our society.

But once we get into large scale immigration programme, governments are in the culture change business, actively or passively, often without even realizing it. In terms of the domestic culture wars, and ongoing debates, the ability to attract more people like one side or another skews the playing field.  Instead of working out our differences, and debating change, within the existing community of New Zealanders, we tilt the playing field one way or the other. I might be comfortable with a large influx of mid-western evangelicals, while most Wellingtonians might prefer liberal Swedes.  I might be happy with strongly Anglican Ugandans or Kenyans, while many would prefer secular French.   In the specific New Zealand context, few migrants have any strong reason to feel a commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi, and for those New Zealanders for whom that is an important issue, any large scale immigration skews the game against (that representation) of Maori interests

It is far easier to resolve disputes, and find an ongoing place for each other, among communities with shared memories, experiences and commitments.  Families do it better than countries.  Countries do it better than the world.  Globalists might not like to acknowledge that, but it doesn’t change the reality.  Families don’t usually resolve their differences –  sometimes painful lasting differences –   by injecting new members into the family.

It is one of the reasons why I’m opposed to large scale immigration programmes at all.  They allow governments to attempt to skew the playing field one way or other, rather than letting the inevitable cultural/values conflict play out, and be sorted out,  by New Zealanders themselves, as New Zealanders.  Perhaps it is a little different when the immigration largely involves people with similar backgrounds (culture/religion) to those of people already in the recipient country.   One might argue that was the case in New Zealand for a long time, although even then one could only do so by ignoring the position of Maori in New Zealand.

I also dealt with some of this stuff in a post on the culture/identity aspects of last year’s New Zealand Initiative report on immigration.

So long as we vote our culture out of existence the Initiative apparently has no problem.  Process appears to trump substance.  For me, I wouldn’t have wanted a million Afrikaners in the 1980s, even if they were only going to vote for an apartheid system, not breaking the law to do so.  I wouldn’t have wanted a million white US Southerners in the 1960s, even if they were only going to vote for an apartheid system, and not break the law to do so.  And there are plenty of other obvious examples elsewhere –  not necessarily about people bringing an agenda, but bringing a culture and a set of cultural preferences that are different than those that have prevailed here (not even necessarily antithetical, but perhaps orthogonal, or just not that well-aligned).

When governments facilitate the inward migration of large numbers of people –  as ours is every year –  they are changing the local culture in the process.  Now, cultures and sense of national identity are not fixed and immutable things, but cultures also embed the things that the people of that country have come to value and which have produced value.  Those people (“natives”) typically aren’t seeking change for its own sake: the culture is in some sense the code “how we do things here”, that built what people value about the society in which they live.  Whether it is comfortable or not to say so, in the last few centuries, Anglo cultures have tended to be among the most stable, prosperous and free.  So it is far from obvious why should embrace change so enthusiastically, or why we would want to adopt the Initiative’s stance, and only want to exclude those whose views and actions are “antithetical” to our own, or who might want to topple our society illegally.

Perhaps if there were really substantial economic gains to New Zealanders from bringing the huge numbers of non-citizens to live in New Zealand it might be different. At very least, we might face the choice –  give up on some of our culture and sense of national identity in exchange for the economic gains.  In some respects, that was the choice Maori faced when the Europeans came –  a clearly more economically productive set of institutions etc, but on the other hand the progressive marginalisation of their own culture. ….

There is also a degree of naivete about the Initiative’s take on culture and/or religion (and the two overlap to a considerable extent).  Back in one of the earlier quotes, the Initiative argued that it was fine with people of whatever belief coming, and

Within New Zealand, people are free to pursue their beliefs, be they spiritual or corporeal, provided these do not impose on other people’s pursuit of the same.

They don’t seem to recognise that most people hold to beliefs that they think should influence how society is organised.  Even libertarians do. This is particularly obvious in Islam, which has never had a very strong distinction between ‘state’ and “church’, but it is no less true of Christianity.  Both are evangelistic religions, proclaiming what they believe to be true – and seeing truth as an absolute concept.  Both can, and have, survived at times and in places as minority faiths, but neither has ever been content to believe that its truths are just for its people, and not for export. I’m not so sure it is really much different either for today’s “social justice warriors”, or for libertarians –  whose proposed rule is, essentially, that we should all just leave each other alone (even though this has never been, and never seems likely to be, how human beings have chosen to organise themselves).

I’m not convinced that stable democratic societies can survive that long without a common culture and/or common religion (the two aren’t the same, but they overlap considerably, and necessarily).  It is hard to know.  We don’t have a long track record of democratic states –  a few hundred years at most (even if one doesn’t use universal suffrage as the standard), and then only for a handful of countries.

…..

Democracy involves agreeing to live by a set of common rules, agreed by some sort of majoritarian process.  In almost any state, those rules include procedures for handling those least able to support themselves (whether it was Old Testament gleaning rules, the Poor Law, or the modern welfare system).  In a democracy, the willingness to help and support others is likely to be limited, to a considerable extent, to those with whom one feels a sense of shared identity.  The boundaries aren’t absolute, but revealed preference –  and introspection –  suggests that almost all of us are willing to do much more for our own families, and then perhaps for friends or members of other close communities of interest (neighbourhoods, church groups etc), and then for others in one’s own country, and only then for citizens of the world.  Is it a desirable model? I’m not sure. But it is human one, one that seems fairly ineradicable at a practical level.   Speaking personally, I don’t feel a strong sense of obligation to support someone down on their luck just because they became a New Zealander yesterday.  And I don’t feel a strong sense of obligation to support someone who won’t work to support themselves.  But I’m much more willing to vote my taxes to support those people than I am to support those down on their luck in Birmingham or Bangalore.  It is partly in that sense that “being a New Zealander” matters.  Mostly, humans will sacrifice for those with whom they sense a shared identity –  and generally that isn’t just the Initiative’s line about a shared belief in equality before the law, free speech etc etc (important to me as those things are).

Of course, what unites and divides a “country” or community changes over time.  In the wake of the Reformation, divisions between Protestants and Catholics were sufficiently important to each to make it practically impossible for both groups to co-exist for long in any numbers in the same territory/polity.  And, sure, multi-national multi-faith empires have existed for prolonged periods –  the Ottomans and Habsburgs were two examples – but not as democracies. Prudent repression can maintain stability for a long time.  But it isn’t the sort of regime that Anglo countries (and many others) have wanted to live under.

But the New Zealand Initiative report doesn’t seem to take seriously any of these issues, not even to rebut them.  They take too lightly what it means to maintain a stable democratic society, or even to preserve the interests and values of those who had already formed a commuity here.    I don’t want stoning for adultery, even if it was adopted by democratic preference.  And I don’t want a political system as flawed as Italy’s, even if evolved by law and practice.   We have something very good in New Zealand, and we should nurture and cherish it.  It mightn’t be –  it isn’t –  perfect, but it is ours, and has evolved through our own choices and beliefs.  For me, as a Christian, I’m not even sure how hospitable the country/community any longer is to my sorts of beliefs – the prevalent “religion” here is now secularism, with all its beliefs and priorities and taboos – but we should deal with those challenges as New Zealanders – not having politicians and bureaucrats imposing their preferences on future population composition/structure.

Values tests simply aren’t any sort of sensible answer, and particularly not in western societies  whose “values” and “religion” are not remotely stable or settled.   Perhaps it would work in Saudi Arabia.  Perhaps it even could have worked in many places in the 19th century.   And if such tests were seriously adopted in a society like New Zealand they would probably end up being used most against the sorts of people who now call for them.  Our culture’s heritage once included Test Acts, and I hope we resist the growing pressure to establish some modern form of them.  We can’t avoid the cultural conflicts within our own society, but we can give ourselves space to work them through as New Zealanders, people with some sort of shared commitment to this place and its people, that few newcomers –  wherever they are from, whatever their values, whatever their religion – are likely to share.

 

What do we want with the Belt and Road?

Readers will recall that the New Zealand China Council was set up by the government a few years ago, and is largely funded by the government, to promote

deeper, stronger and more resilient links between New Zealand and China

The Council includes the heads of government departments/agencies (MFAT and NZTE), and includes plenty of people –  including retired politicians – with strong business links to the People’s Republic of China.    A significant part of what they do –  see their Annual Report – is a “communications and advocacy programme”, designed –  it seems – to help ensure that as far as possible New Zealanders see things their way, and don’t create trouble around either the character of the regime (and the party that controls it), or that regime’s activities at home, abroad, and in New Zealand itself.   There are, after all, deals to be done, political donations to be solicited, friends to be protected, and so on.

Stephen Jacobi is the executive director of the Council, and its public face.  In the last few weeks I’ve written about a speech Jacobi gave recently in which he attempted –  without much depth or rigour –  to bat away concerns about PRC activities and risks, and also about a rather economics-lite press release he had put out attempting (Trump-like) to make much of the current trade surplus with the People’s Republic of China.

This week Jacobi was out with another speech, this one on Investing in Belt and Road – A New Zealand Perspective.  “Belt and Road Initiative” (or BRI) is the most recent label (previously “One Belt, One Road”) on a somewhat ill-defined but expanding PRC programme, partly about improved infrastructure (initially in and around central Asia) and partly –  some argue mainly – about extending PRC geopolitical interests in ways that display scant regard for recipient countries’ debt burdens, social or environmental standards, transparency and so on. A few weeks ago, a Bloomberg story reported that Xi Jinping had just added the Arctic and Latin America to the areas (now almost the entire world) supposedly cover by the Belt and Road initiative

BRI graphic

Or as a recent New Yorker story put it

“Across Asia, there is wariness of China’s intentions. Under the Belt and Road Initiative it has loaned so much money to its neighbours that critics liken the debt to a form of imperialism.  When Sri Lanka couldn’t repay loans on a deepwater port, China took majority ownership of the project”

I’ve also linked previously to a recent report on the potential debt risks associated with the BRI programme.

Last week’s speech isn’t, of course, the first time Jacobi has been talking about the BRI.  In a Newsroom article last year he was quoted this way

Jacobi says “the real play” in our corner of the world is less about infrastructure and more about connecting up with China through including the flow of goods, services and people.

“I’ve even heard reference to the Digital Silk Road, the vision is expanding … there’s a bit of talk in China about Belt and Road being a new way to manage globalisation instead of the old ways, which have been done off the back of trade liberalisation in particular.”

But it wasn’t very clear, at all, what it meant for New Zealand

Jacobi says New Zealand shouldn’t let too much time go by before it develops more concrete ideas for what Belt and Road could achieve in New Zealand.

“We’ve really got to move from a very conceptual phase to talking about more definite projects: I can see scope for some projects that exist at the national level between New Zealand and China on bigger picture economic cooperation-type matters, and I can see scope for more discrete projects with individual provinces.”

But what did Mr Jacobi have to say this week?

He mightn’t be sure quite what the substance of the Initiative is, but Jacobi seems pretty sure it is a good thing.

Meanwhile China under its newly-empowered President is proceeding to implement the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a new model for globalisation, precisely at the time when people all around the world are calling for new ways to make globalisation work better.

What China –  with far-reaching restrictions still in place on foreign access to its market, especially around services –  means by “globalisation” isn’t what most people think of.

And so he tells us that

It is the assessment of the NZ China Council that New Zealand cannot afford to stand aside from developing a contribution to Belt and Road.

If we choose not to engage, others most certainly will and we will find our preferential position in the Chinese market further eroded.

There is the odd caveat

At the same time, we need to proceed carefully and in a way which matches our interests, our values and, especially, our comparative advantage.

although I don’t think I noticed any substantive discussion of our values or what they might mean in this context.

The context for any New Zealand involvement is a Memorandum of Arrangement signed by the two governments a year ago.

As Jacobi puts it

The MoA is non-binding and largely aspirational –  it set a timetable of 18 months for the development of this co-operation – we understand the official wheels are now in motion to put some greater flesh on the bones of how we might co-operate in the future.

And the China Council is working up its own ideas.

We suspect the greater benefit for NZ is likely to be in the “soft infrastructure” rather than the “hard infrastructure” – the way goods, services, capital and people move along the belt and road rather than building the road itself.

New Zealand has wide policy expertise and commercial services to offer in this area which matches a number of the policy areas China has highlighted for Belt and Road including policy co-ordination, investment and trade facilitation, and cultural and social exchange.

And they’ve had a consultant’s report done –  to be released in May –  with proposals.

Count me a little sceptical.  When Statistics New Zealand released the country breakdown of goods and services exports a few weeks ago, I had a look at the services exports of New Zealand firms to the PRC.  Under services exports –  themselves only 20 per cent of the total –  were tourism, export education, and travel/transportation.  Fifth on the list of “major services exports” was “other business services”.  Last year, that totalled $32 million – a fraction of 1 per cent of total exports to China.  It isn’t surprising, given that tight restrictions China has on most services sector trade, but it does leave you wondering what Mr Jacobi has in mind from his champion of globalisation.

I hadn’t previously got round to reading the Memorandum of Arrangement.  On doing so, it was hard to disagree with Mr Jacobi’s “aspirational” characterisation.  But equally, one had to wonder whether these were aspirations we should share (with Simon Bridges, who signed the agreement for the previous government).

It was, for example, a little hard to take at face value this bit of the preamble

BRI 1

and a bit further on the preamble started to get positively troubling, the Participants

BRI 2

I’m quite sure I – and most New Zealanders –  have  little interest in pushing forward “coordinated economic…and cultural development” with a state that can’t deliver anything like first world living standards for its own people (while Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea etc do) and whose idea of cultural development appears to involve the deliberate suppression of culture in Xinjiang, the persecution of religion (Christian, Muslim, Falun Gong or whatever), the denial of freedom of expression (let alone the vote) and which has only recently backed away from compelling abortions.  And that is just their activities inside China.    “Fusion among civilisations” doesn’t sound overly attractive either –  most of us cherish our own, and value and respect the good in others, without wanting any sort of fusion,and loss of distinctiveness.  But perhaps Simon Bridges saw things differently?

The next section is “Cooperation Objectives”.  There is lots of blather, including this

BRI 3

Hard not to think that “regional peace and development” might be better secured if the PRC forebore from creating new articial islands, seizing reefs etc in the South China Sea, or patrolling menacingly around the Senkaku Islands, engaging in military standoffs with India, or even making threatening noises about Taiwan.  There seem to be two main threats to regional peace, and the other is North Korea.  But you’d never hear anything of that sort from a New Zealand government.

The next section is “Cooperation Principles” under which the governments agree to

BRI 4

In other words, if New Zealand keeps quiet and never ever upsets Beijing, whether about their domestic policies (economic, human rights, democracy), their foreign policies (expansionist and aggressive) or their influence activities in other countries, including our own, everything will be just fine, and the PRC will keep dealing with us.  And on the other hand…….?

There are then  five “Cooperation Areas”.   Apparently, we are going to actively conduct “mutually beneficial cooperation in….public financial management” (hint: that “wall of debt” is a sign things haven’t been done well so far).  But the one that really caught my eye was under the heading “policy cooperation”, where Simon Bridges committed us to

BRI 5

It isn’t obvious New Zealand now has any “major development strategies” (see sustained lack of productivity growth) or that the PRC ones offer much to anyone –  well, individual business deals aside –  when compared with, say, those of Taiwan, Singapore, or Korea.     And what is this bit about strengthening “communication and cooperation on each other’s major macro policies”?     Why?  To what end?     And who thinks it is desirable for New Zealand to “connect and integrate” our (largely non-existent) “major development strategies”, and our “plans and policies” with those of the PRC?  A country that, as even Mr Jacobi recognised in his earlier speech, has fundamentally different values.

And the agreement concludes

bri 6

One has to wonder how it is in the interests of the people of New Zealand (as a whole –  as distinct perhaps from some individual businesses looking for a good deal), or consonant with their values, to support such an initiative, or a regime such as that of the PRC. Apart from anything else, it all seems curiously one-sided: the agreement isn’t to support New Zealanders, but rather to advance a geopolitical projection strategy of a major power, with very different values than our own.   Can anyone imagine us having signed such an agreement with the Soviet Union in the 1970s?

We can only wait and see the details of what the China Council will propose in their paper in May.   And, even more interestingly, what the government comes up with –  being bound to formulate a detailed work plan by September.  Winston Peters may regret the previous government signing up, but he is now stuck with the agreeement for four more years.  One hopes the government will find a way to some minimalist, not very costly, arrangements, but given how keen governments of both major parties have been to cosy up to Beijing –  party presidents praising Xi Jinping –  it is difficult to be optimistic.  On the other hand, it is difficult to see quite what any New Zealand involvement might amount to, and perhaps Beijing has already had the real win –  getting a Western country, a Five Eyes member, to sign up to such a questionable deal with such an obnoxious regime.

But to get back to Mr Jacobi’s speech, nearing the end he observes

There is currently a debate in New Zealand about the extent of Chinese influence in our economy.

I am on record as being concerned about some of the “anti-China” narrative in that debate, especially in the unfortunate targeting of prominent individuals in the Chinese community, but there is nothing wrong with a debate focused on how to build a resilient relationship with China given the difference political values between our two countries.

While I welcome his final half-sentence, it is a little hard to take seriously when he never – at least in public –  engages seriously with the concerns that people like Anne-Marie Brady have been raising.  As I noted about his earlier speech, among other things he will simply never

  • address why it is appropriate to have as member of Parliament in New Zealand a former Chinese intelligence official, former (at least on paper) member of the Communist Party, someone who now openly acknowledges misrepresenting his past on forms to gain entry to New Zealand (apparently because that is what the PRC regime told people to do),
  • address the PRC control of the local Chinese language media, and associated (and apparently heightened) restriction on content,

Instead he falls back on plaintive laments about the “unfortunate targeting of prominent individuals in the Chinese community”.   These same people –  since presumably he has in mind Jian Yang and Raymond Huo –  sit on his own advisory board.  And both are not members of the public, but elected members of Parliament: not in either case elected by a local constituency (and certainly not by “the Chinese community”), but by all New Zealand voters for their respective parties.     And yet both of them –  but particularly Jian Yang –  simply refuse to answer questions or appear in the English language media to explain and defend (in Yang’s case) the background, and their ongoing ties to the PRC and apparent reluctance to ever say a critical word about that heinous regime.

It must now be six months –  since the Newsroom stories first broke –  since Jian Yang has appeared.   At the moment, it looks much less like “unfortunate targeting”, than quite specific and detailed targeting, with unfortunate defence and distraction being played by key figures in the New Zealand establishment, including Mr Jacobi.  Perhaps people might be more persuaded by Jacobi’s case –  that working closely with, and constantly deferring to, the PRC was in the best long-term interests of New Zealanders, if he called for his board members to front up, rather than giving them cover to simply shut up.

In concluding the post a few weeks ago about Mr Jacobi’s earlier speech, I had a speculative paragraph on some uncomfortable parallels between the PRC now, and Germany in the 1930s.  If the parallel isn’t exact –  and we must hope not, given how the earlier episode ended –  it still seems closer than any other historical case I can think of, including the same desperate desire to appease, to understand, to get alongside (key figures in the British Cabinet were still hoping to do economic deals with Berlin well into 1939), and the same reluctance to confront evil or take a stand (even at some cost to some businesses).  In a week when the PRC “Parliament” passed the amendment to remove the term limit on the office of President with 2958 votes in favour and two against, I decided to check out the results of the referendum Hitler staged in August 1934 after President Hindenburg died, to finally concentrate all power in his own hands.  This was 18 months into the Nazi era.  Despite widespread intimidation, almost 10 per cent of voters (on a high turnout) felt free to dissent

For 38,394,848 88.1
Against 4,300,370 9.9
Invalid/blank votes 873,668 2.0
Total 43,568,886 100

There is something to be said for our governments openly and honestly confronting the nature of the Beijing regime.   We can’t change them, and it isn’t our place to, but we can choose with whom we associate, we can choose how often we just keep quiet, and how much of our own values (and the interests of many of our own Chinese citizens) we compromise in the quest for a few deals for a few businesses (and universities) – and a steady flow of political party donations.   And we can, and do, as I’ve pointed out before, make our own prosperity.  If individuals firms want to deal with the PRC, on its terms, then good luck to them I suppose, but we then need to wary of those same firms and institutions, and to ask whose interests they are now, implicitly or explicitly, championing.

There is a weird line in Matthew Hooton’s column in today’s Herald in which he asserts that no one should be critical of China because “China is just doing what emerging Great Powers always do”.  That may be a semi-accurate description.  It didn’t stop us calling out, and resisting, the expansionist tendencies of Germany, Japan, or the Soviet Union.  It shouldn’t hold us back in recognising the threat the latest party-State, the People’s Republic of China, poses both abroad and here.

 

 

The new government’s immigration policy

It was confirmed yesterday that the new government’s immigration policy will be the policy the Labour Party campaigned on (albeit very quietly).  And so we learned that the new government will remain a fully signed-up adherent of the same flawed, increasingly misguided, “big New Zealand” approach that has guided immigration policy for at least the last 25 years.

If that is disappointing, it shouldn’t really be any surprise.     The Green Party approach to immigration is pretty open –  the “globalist” strand in their thought apparently outweighing either concern for New Zealand’s natural environment or any sort of hard-headed analysis of the economic costs and benefits to New Zealanders.  Only a few months ago, they were at one with the New Zealand Initiative, tarring as “xenophobic” any serious debate around the appropriate rate of immigration to New Zealand.  Never mind that population growth is driving up carbon and methane emissions, in a country where marginal abatement costs are larger than in other advanced economies, and yet where the same party is determined that New Zealand should reach net zero emissions only 33 years hence.

As for New Zealand First, they talk a good talk.  But that’s it.   As I noted a few months ago, reading the New Zealand First immigration policy (itself very light on specifics)

If one took this page of policy seriously, one could vote for NZ First safe in the expectation that nothing very much would change at all about the broad direction, or scale, of our immigration policy.     Of course, there would be precedent for that.  The last times New Zealand First was part of a government, nothing happened about immigration either.

Even so, I was just slightly surprised that there wasn’t even a token departure from the Labour Party’s immigration policy that New Zealand First could claim credit for.   The New Zealand Initiative’s report on immigration policy earlier in the year was largely (and explicitly) motivated by concerns about what New Zealand First might mean for immigration policy.

Six months ago, when we started scoping the Initiative’s immigration report, we had a very specific audience in mind: Winston Peters. Our aim was to assemble all the available research and have a fact-based conversation with New Zealand’s most prominent immigration sceptic.

Turns out that, perhaps not surprisingly based on the past track record, that they needn’t have bothered.

And so Labour’s election policy will be the immigration policy of the new government.    The policy documents themselves are here and here.   I wrote about the policy here at the time it was released in June, before the Ardern ascendancy.   It was notable how little attention Labour gave to immigration policy during the campaign –  perhaps it didn’t fit easily with the “relentlessly positive” theme –  and I understand there was a conscious decision by the new leadership to downplay the subject.    It will be interesting to see now whether they follow through on their manifesto, but very little about immigration policy requires legislative change so, in principle, the changes should be able to be done quite quickly.  In fact, as the biggest proposed changes affect international students one would assume they will be wanting to have those measures in places in time for the new academic year.

What also remains quite remarkable is the extent to which Labour’s policy has been taken as a substantial change.  Serious overseas media and intelligent commentators have presented Labour’s proposals as some sort of major sustained change in New Zealand approach to immigration, and thus to expected immigrant numbers.    To read some of the Australian and American commentary you might have supposed, say, that in future New Zealand’s immigration approvals might be cut towards, say, the sorts of levels (per capita) that prevailed in the United States under Bush and Obama.

Labour’s policy is, of course, nothing of the sort.  Under the proposed policy, New Zealand will remain –  by international standards –  extraordinarily open to non-citizen migrants, with expected inflows three times (per capita) those of the United States, and exceeded only (among OECD countries) by Israel in a good year (for them).

What determines how many people from abroad get to settle permanently in New Zealand is the residence approvals programme.   Under that programme, at present the aim is to grant around 45000 approvals to non-citizens each year (Australians aren’t subject to visa requirements, but in most years the net inflow of Australians is very small).  The outgoing government reduced that target (from 47500) last year.   Labour’s immigration policy document does not, even once, mention the residence approvals programme.  That was, no doubt, a conscious choice.  They are quite happy with the baseline rate of non-citizen immigration we’ve had for the last 20 years; quite happy to have the highest planned rate of non-citizen immigration anywhere in the OECD.  Medium-term forecasts of the net non-citizen immigration inflow will not change, one iota, if Labour proceeds with their policy.  For some of course, that will be a desirable feature.  For others it is a serious flaw, that results from failing to come to grips with the damage large scale immigration is doing to the economic fortunes of New Zealanders.

Of course, there are planned policy changes.    There are various small things:

  • an increased refugee quota,
  • steps to increase the utilisation of the existing Pacific quotas,
  • more onerous requirements for investor visas (including requiring investment in new “government-issued infrastructure bonds”),
  • a new Exceptional Skills visa,
  • a KiwiBuild visa

Taken together, these won’t affect total numbers to any material extent.

There is also a (welcome) change under which they will

Remove the Skilled Migrant Category bonus points currently gained by studying or working in New Zealand and standardise the age points to 30 for everyone under 45.

All else equal, these changes won’t affect the number of people getting residence, or materially affect the average quality (skill level) of those getting residence.   That is a shame: at present, too many migrants aren’t that skilled at all, and maintaining such a large approvals target (in such a remote, not very prosperous, country) makes it hard to lift the average quality.

The bigger changes are under two headings.    The first is around temporary work visas.   Here is what they say they will do.

Labour will:

• Actively manage the essential skills in demand lists with a view to reducing the number of occupations included on those lists

• Develop regional skill shortage lists in consultation with regional councils and issue visas that require the visa holder to live and work within a region that is relevant to their identified skill

• For jobs outside of skills shortages lists, Labour will ensure visas are only issued when a genuine effort has been made to find Kiwi workers

• Strengthen the labour market test for Essential Skills Work Visas to require employers to have offered rates of pay and working conditions that are at least the market rate

• Require industries with occupations on the Essential Skills in Demand lists to have a plan for training people to have the skills they require developed together with Industry Training Organisations

• Review the accredited employers system to make sure it is operating properly.

The broad direction seems sensible enough –  after all, the rhetoric has been about lifting the average skill level of the people we take.   But as I noted in my comments in June, the policy is notable for its touching faith in the ability of bureaucrats to get things right, juggling and managing skills lists, and now extending that to a regional differentiation.   There is no suggestion, for example, of letting markets work, whether by (as I’ve proposed) imposing a flat (quite high) fee for work visas and then letting the market work out which jobs need temporary immigrant labour, or by requiring evidence that market wages for the skill concerned have already risen quite a lot.  The latter would have seemed an obvious consideration for a party with trade union affiliates.

On Labour’s own estimates, these changes won’t have a large effect on the number of people here on work visas at any one time, although in the year or so after any changes are implemented, the net inflows that year will be lower than they otherwise would have been.

Much the same goes for the biggest area of change Labour is proposing, around international students.

Labour will:

• Continue to issue student visas and associated work rights to international students studying at Level 7 or higher – usually university levels and higher

• Stop issuing student visas for courses below a bachelor’s degree which are not independently assessed by the TEC and NZQA to be of high quality

• Limit the ability to work while studying to international students studying at Bachelor-level or higher. For those below that level, their course will have to have the ability to work approved as part of the course

• Limit the “Post Study Work Visa – Open” after graduating from a course of study in New Zealand to those who have studied at Bachelor-level or higher.

In general, I think these are changes in the right direction.  Here were some of the comments I made earlier

I’m a little uneasy about the line drawn between bachelor’s degree and other lines of study.  It seems to prioritise more academic courses of study over more vocational ones, and while the former will often require a higher level of skill, the potential for the system to be gamed, and for smart tertiary operators to further degrade some of the quality of their (very numerous) bachelor’s degree offerings can’t be ignored.  …… I’d probably have been happier if the right to work while studying had been withdrawn, or more tightly limited, for all courses.   And if open post-study work visas had been restricted to those completing post-graduate qualifications.

The proposals are some mix of protecting foreign students themselves, protecting the reputation of the better bits of our export education industry, and changes in the temporary work visas rules themselves.     In Labour’s telling –  and it seems a plausible story –  the changes are not designed to produce a particular numerical outcome, but to realign the rules in ways that better balance various interests.  The numbers will adjust of course, but that isn’t the primary goal.

Labour estimates that these changes will lower the number of visas granted annually by around 20000.   That is presented, in their documents, as a reduction in annual net migration of around that amount.   But that is true only in a transition, immediately after the changes are introduced.  The stock of people here on such student and related visas will fall, but after the initial transitional period there will be little or no expected change in the net inflow over time (which is as one would expect, since the residence approvals target is the key consideration there).

To see this consider a scenario in which 100000 new short-term visas are issued each year, and all those people stay for a year and a day (just long enough to get into the PLT numbers).  In a typical year, there will then be 100000 new arrivals and 100000 departures.

Now change the rules so that in future only 75000 short-term visas are issued each year.  In the first year, there will be 75000 arrivals and (still) 100000 departures (people whose visas were issued under the old rules and who were already here).  But in the next year, there will be 75000 arrivals and 75000 departures.    Measured net PLT migration will have been 25000 lower than otherwise in the first year, but is not different than otherwise in the years beyond that.

That doesn’t mean the policy changes have no effect.  They will lower the stock of short-term non-citizens working and studying in New Zealand.    They will ease, a little, demand for housing.  In some specific sectors, with lots of short-term immigrant labour, they may ease downward pressures on wages (although in general, immigrants add more to demand than to supply, and that applies to students too).   But it won’t change the expected medium-term migration inflow.

Oh, and the student visa changes will, all else equal, reduce exports

Selling education to foreign students is an export industry, and tighter rules will (on Labour’s own numbers) mean a reduction in the total sales of that industry.   Does that bother me?  No, not really.  When you subsidise an activity you tend to get more of it.  We saw that with subsidies to manufacturing exporters in the 1970s and 80s, and with subsidies to farmers at around the same time.  We see it with film subsidies today.  Export incentives simply distort the economy, and leave us with lower levels of productivity, and wealth/income, than we would otherwise have.   In export education, we haven’t been giving out government cash with the export sales, but the work rights (during study and post-study) and the preferential access to points in applying for residence are subsidies nonetheless.  If the industry can stand on its own feet, with good quality educational offerings pitched at a price the market can stand, then good luck to it.  If not, we shouldn’t be wanting it here any more than we want car assembly plants or TV manufacturing operations here.

I participated in a panel discussion on Radio New Zealand this morning on Labour’s proposed changes.  In that discussion I was surprised to hear Eric Crampton suggest that the changes would put material additional pressure on the finances of universities.    Perhaps, although (a) the changes are explicitly aimed at sub-degree level courses, and (b) to the extent that universities are getting students partly because of the residence points that have been on offer, it is just another form of “corporate welfare” or subsidy that one would typically expect the New Zealand Initiative to oppose.      Whether hidden or explicit, industry subsidies aren’t a desirable feature of economic policy.

Standing back, Labour’s proposal look as though they might make a big difference in only a small number of sectors, notably the lower end of the export education market.  If implemented, they will be likely to temporarily demand housing demand –  perhaps reinforcing the current weakness in the Auckland housing market, along with some of their other proposed legislation (eg the extension of the brightline test and the “healthy homes” bill).   But they aren’t any sort of solution to the house price problem either: after the single year adjustment, population growth projections will be as strong as ever, and in the face of those pressures only fixing the urban land market will solve that problem. Time will tell what Labour’s policy proposals in that area, which have sounded promising, will come to.

Two final thoughts.  One wonders if whatever heat there has been in the immigration issue –  and it didn’t figure hugely in the election –  will fade if the headline numbers start to turn down again anyway.   The net flow  of New Zealanders to Australia has not yet shown signs of picking up –  but it will resume as the Australian labour market recovers.  But in the latest numbers, there has been some sign of a downturn in the net inflow of non-citizens.

PLT non citizen

There is a long way to go to get back to the 11250 a quarter that is roughly consistent with the 45000 residence approvals planned for each year.  But, if sustained, this correction would provide at least some temporary relief on the housing and transport fronts.  As above, Labour’s changes will have a one-off effect on further reducing this net inflow in the next 12 or 18 months, but nothing material beyond that.

And in case this post is seen by the new Minister of Immigration, or that person’s advisers, could I make a case for two things:

  • first, better and more accessible data.  The readily useable migration approvals is published only once a year, with a lag even then of four or five months.  The latest Migration Trends and Outlook was released in November 2016, covering the year to June 2016.  It is inexcusably poor that we do not have this data readily, and easily useable, available monthly, within a few days of the end of the relevant month, and included (for example) as part of Statistics New Zealand’s Infoshare platform.  The monthly PLT data are useful for some things, but if you want a good quality discussion and debate around immigration policy, make the immigration approvals data more easily available.    As a comparison, building permits data is quickly and easily available, reported by SNZ.  Why not migration approvals?
  • second, considering referring the issue of the economics of New Zealand immigration to the Productivity Commission for an inquiry.   Perhaps the current policy, as Labour proposes to amend it, has all the net gains the advocates say it does.  If so, the Productivity Commission could helpfully, and in a non-partisan way, demonstrate that.  But there are still serious issues around New Zealand’s unusually liberal immigration policy, in a country so remote and with such a poor track record in increasing its international trade share.  Whatever the economic merits of immigration in some places, it is by no means sure that large scale immigration here is doing anything to improve the fortunes of most New Zealanders.  It may, in fact, be holding us back, being one part of the story as to why we’ve failed to make any progress in closing the productivity gaps with other advanced economies.  It would seem an obvious topic for the Productivity Commission, and a good way of lifting the quality of the policy debate around this really substantial policy intervention.

 

 

 

Implications of a new government for monetary policy

Whichever way New Zealand First decides to go, we’ll have a different government than we’ve had for the last few years.   Whatever form that government takes –  coalition, confidence and supply agreements, or just sitting on the cross-benches – New Zealand First’s votes will typically be vital for passing any legislation, and whichever party leads the government will constantly be needing to consult with New Zealand First to avoid inadvertently getting offside with them.

As issues around the Reserve Bank and the exchange rate have been a significant part of Winston Peters’ stated concerns over the years (including attempts to amend the Act through a private members’ bill, and repeated references to a Singaporean style of monetary policy), it is interesting to speculate on what difference his bloc of votes in Parliament might make to these issues over the next few years.  A journalist asked for my thoughts the other day, and this post fleshes out what I said in response to those questions.

There are probably at least three –  separable – areas worth touching on (simply as regards the Bank’s monetary policy roles):

  • the specification of the target for monetary policy, whether in the Act or the Policy Targets Agreement,
  • any changes to the legislated decisionmaking and accountability provisions for monetary policy, and
  • the type of person appointed as Governor.

I find it worthwhile to recall that Winston Peters has history in this area.  In 1996, New Zealand First was campaigning vigorously on bringing about change at the Reserve Bank.  At the time, the particular concern was that in focusing on price stability (0 to 2 per cent inflation at the time) we were encouraging/causing an overvalued exchange rate.  The proposed remedy was that we should instead target inflation around the average of our main trading partners (then a bit higher than New Zealand).    What actually happened was that as part of the horse-trading for the coalition agreement with National, Don Brash agreed to an amended Policy Targets Agreement, in which the target was raised from 0 to 2 per cent annual inflation, to 0 to 3 per cent annual inflation.  Actual inflation had been averaging about 1.5 per  cent anyway, so although the change made a small difference to policy for a short period, the difference was pretty minimal.  After that, Winston Peters –  as Treasurer – displayed little real interest in monetary policy and never bothered the Bank again.

So my starting point, in thinking about New Zealand First influence on Reserve Bank matters now, is that although I’m quite sure that the concerns Peters expresses –  including around overvalued real exchange rates –  are quite real (and in many respects valid –  shared as they’ve been by people spanning the range from Graeme Wheeler to me), in the end not much about the conduct of monetary policy is likely to change at his insistence.  And that is probably as it should be –  our real exchange rate problems are not primarily grounded in monetary policy problems.

We also know that although Peters has repeatedly talked of preferring a Singaporean model of monetary policy (a guided exchange rate, without an officially-set OCR), both Steven Joyce and Grant Robertson during the campaign flatly ruled out such a change.  They were right to do so.  I’ve explained why in a post earlier this year.    Even if such a system was desirable, it isn’t workable (at all) for New Zealand unless and until the structural demand factors behind our interest rates being persistently higher than those abroad are tackled –  and that isn’t a matter for monetary policy.

And the Singaporean model is not one of an absolutely fixed exchange rate.  It is a managed regime (historically, “managed” in all sorts of ways, including direct controls and strong moral suasion).  It produces a fairly high degree of short-term stability in the basket measure of the Singapore dollar.      But it works, to the extent it does, mostly because the SGD interest rates consistent with domestic medium-term price stability in Singapore are typically a bit lower than those in other advanced countries (in turn a reflection of the large current account surpluses Singapore now runs –  national savings rates far outstripping desired domestic investment).  As the Reserve Bank paper I linked to earlier noted

“From 1990 to 2011, the average short term Singapore government borrowing rate was 1.8 percent p.a. below returns on the US Treasury bill.”

Those are big differences (materially larger than the difference between the two countries’ average inflation rates).  And they mean that Singapore dollar fixed income assets are not particularly attractive to foreign investment funds.  By contrast, New Zealand’s short-term real and nominal interest rates are almost always materially higher than those in other advanced countries.   Partly as a result, even though Singapore’s economy is now materially larger than New Zealand’s, there is less international trade in the Singapore dollar than in the New Zealand dollar.

So a Singaporean model just is not going to be launched in New Zealand any time soon.

If Peters sides with National, what then might he secure in this area?

An obvious possibility would be a change to the Policy Targets Agreement.  There has to be a new one when a Governor is appointed, and (if they think the current interim one is lawful and binding –  which I don’t) they could also seek an immediate change.  Such changes immediately upon a change of government have been the norm rather than the exception (having happened, to a greater ot lesser extent, in 1990, 1996, 1999, and 2008).

At the start of each Policy Targets Agreement it has become customary (Peters began the pattern in 1996) to have a preamble about what the government is hoping to achieve.  The current government’s preamble reads this way:

The Government’s economic objective is to promote a growing, open and competitive economy as the best means of delivering permanently higher incomes and living standards for New Zealanders. Price stability plays an important part in supporting this objective.

It would be easy enough to craft a form of words that talked about avoiding an overvalued and excessively volatile exchange rate and promoting the tradables sector of the New Zealand economy.

But it won’t make any difference –  one iota of difference –  to the way monetary policy is conducted.  It is a statement of political aspiration –  and can perhaps be sold to the base as such –  not a mandate for the Governor.

Recall too that the Policy Targets Agreements since 1999 have required the Bank, while pursuing price stability to” seek to avoid unnecessary instability in output, interest rates and the exchange rate”.  On occasion, that provision has (modestly) influenced monetary policy choices at the margin (one reason I’ve favoured removing it), at least with a Governor who was that way inclined anyway.  In principle, the exchange rate element could be singled out and given more prominence further up the document.

Winston Peters’ private members bill sought to amend the statutory goal of monetary policy (section 8 of the Act) this way (adding the bolded words)

The primary function of the Bank is to formulate and implement monetary policy directed to the economic objective of maintaining stability in the general level of prices while maintaining an exchange rate that is conducive to real export growth and job creation.

I simply cannot see the National Party agreeing to that specific formulation. I hope they wouldn’t.  It goes too far and asks the Reserve Bank to do something that is impossible (real exchange rates are real phenomena, not monetary ones).   But could they consider a formulation like this one?

The primary function of the Bank is to formulate and implement monetary policy directed to the economic objective of maintaining stability in the general level of prices while promoting the highest levels of production, trade and employment that can be achieved by monetary policy.

It is very similar to the legislative provisions introduced by the National government in 1950, in providing a greater degree of (formal) independence for the Reserve Bank and a new focus on price stability.  But in that framing the caveat “the highest levels…that can be achieved by monetary policy” is vital.   Beyond the short to medium term, monetary policy can’t do much other than maintain stable prices.

Perhaps they could find, and agree on, some clever wording.   It would be a rhetorical victory for Peters, and since rhetoric and symbolism do matter not necessarily an insignificant one.

But, so I would argue, not one that would, on its own, make any practical difference to the conduct of monetary policy.  Reflecting back on the 25 years of advice I gave to successive Governors on the appropriate OCR, I can’t think of a single occasion when the advice would have been likely to be different under this formulation than under the current wording.

What about possible governance changes –  to the formal statutory provisions around monetary policy decisionmaking?  At present, all power is vested in the Governor personally, the Governor’s appointment is largely controlled by the Bank’s Board (unlike most countries where the Minister of Finance has the main power).

I can’t imagine that the National Party would be averse to some changes in this area.  After all, Steven Joyce commissioned the Rennie review and in doing so was presumably open to at least some modest changes (perhaps legislating something like the current internal advisory committee).   But equally, it is difficult to see why New Zealand First would regard it as any sort of win to hand power to more internal technocrats.  To the extent New Zealand First favours governance changes they probably prefer a decisionmaking Board dominated by outsiders, with a strong export sector orientation.  Perhaps it isn’t a die in the ditch issue for National, but it is harder to see the two parties reaching agreement on that sort of change, even if it did produce something that looked rather like the (generally highly-regarded) Reserve Bank of Australia.

But if Peters and New Zealand First care about making a difference to the actual conduct of monetary policy over the next few years, or even to how the Bank talks about monetary policy, the key consideration is who becomes Governor.   Whatever the formal specification of the target, whatever flowery words exist around goals, the personality, instincts, “models”, and preferences of whoever is appointed Governor matters a great deal.  Partly because it is a single decisionmaker system, and partly because as chief executive the Governor (inevitably and appropriately) has a big influence on how the institution evolves, where it focuses its analytical energies and advice etc.

But the Governor selection process has been underway for months, and the Bank’s Board – all appointed by the National government –  must be getting close to delivering an initial recommendation to whoever is appointed as Minister of Finance.   No doubt the Minister of Finance would consult New Zealand First –  whether through the Cabinet appointments process, or outside it –  and the Minister can reject a Board nomination.  But the Minister can’t impose his or her own candidate, they just have to consider the next person the Board puts forward.  Since the Board were (a) appointed under the current system, and (b) have had no concerns at all about the conduct of monetary policy or the leadership of the Bank in recent years, it seems reasonable to assume they’ll be putting forward a status quo candidate (there are no known exceptional candidates).  If so, my money is on Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand who –  as I’ve written about recently –  might be a safe pair of hands, but is unlikely to be more than that, and about whom there are some concerns (especially if, as Peters appears to, one cares about the interests of bank depositors.)

In short, if National leads the next government I wouldn’t expect any material differences on the monetary policy front, even if there are some symbolic wins for New Zealand First.  Even governance reform –  which most people think desirable –  might be hard to actually deliver (the status quo will avoid any conflicts).

And what if Labour leads the next government, requiring support of the Greens and New Zealand First for legislation?

In that case, legislative reforms are more certain, but somewhat similar questions remain about what difference they might make.

Thus, the Labour Party campaigned on amending section 8 of the Act to include some sort of full employment objective.   They haven’t provided specific suggested wording, and would no doubt want official advice on that.  The Greens have endorsed that proposal and there is no obvious reason why New Zealand First would oppose it. But they might want to try to get some reference to the exchange rate or the tradables sector included, whether in the Act itself or in the Policy Targets Agreement.  The sort of wording I floated earlier in this post might provide a basis for something workable.

I’ve also previously suggested that if Labour is serious about the full employment concern, it might make sense to amend section 15 of the Act (governing monetary policy statements) to require the Bank to periodically publish its estimates of a non-inflationary unemployment rate (a NAIRU), and explain deviations of the actual unemployment rate from that (moving) estimate.  In principle, something similar could be done for the real exchange rate, but the (theoretical) grounds for doing so are rather weaker.  Perhaps the political grounds are stronger, and such a change might encourage the Bank to devote more of its research efforts to real exchange rate and economic performance issues.

But –  and I deliberately use the same words I used above –  such legislative changes are not ones that would, on their own, make any practical difference to the conduct of monetary policy.  Reflecting back on the 25 years of advice I gave to successive Governors on the appropriate OCR, I can’t think of a single occasion when the advice would have been likely to be different under this formulation than under the current wording.

The Labour Party and the Greens also campaigned on legislative reforms to the monetary policy governance model (including a decisionmaking committee with a mix of insiders and relatively expert outsiders, and the timely publication of the minutes of such a committee.)   Although those proposals would represent a step in the right direction, they are rather weak. In particular, since Labour proposed that all the committee members would be appointed by the Governor, the change would largely just cement-in the undue dominance of the Governor.    But I’d be surprised if they were wedded to those details, and it shouldn’t be too hard to reach a tri-party agreement on a decisionmaking structure for monetary policy –  probably one that put more of the appointment powers in the hands of the Minister of Finance (as elsewhere) and allowed for non-expert members (as is quite common on Crown boards –  or, indeed, in Cabinet).

So legislative change in that area –  probably quite significant change –  seems like something we could count on under a Labour-led government.

But whether it would make much difference to the actual conduct of policy over the next few years still depends considerably on who is appointed as Governor.   Not only will whoever is appointed as Governor going to be the sole decisionmaker until new legislation is passed and implemented –  which could easily be 12 to 18 months away –  but that individual will be an important part of the design of the new legislation and the sort of culture that is built (or rebuilt) at the Reserve Bank.

As I noted earlier, the appointment process for the Governor has been underway for months.  Applications closed at a time –  early July –  when few people would have given the left much chance of forming a government.  And the Board, all appointed by the current government and strong public backers of the conduct of policy in recent years, have the lead role in the appointment.   Perhaps a new Labour-led government would reject a Bascand nomination.  But even if they did so, they have no idea which name would be wheeled up next.

There are alternatives, if the parties to a left-led government actually wanted things done differently at the Bank.   First, they could insist that the Bank’s Board reopen the selection process, working within the sorts of priorities such a new government would be legislating for.  Or they could simply pass a very simple and short amending Act to give the appointment power to the Minister of Finance (which is how things work almost everywhere else).  Of course, there is still the question of who would be the right candidate, but at least they would establish alignment of vision from the start –  a reasonable aspiration, given that the Reserve Bank Governor has more influence on short-term macro outcomes than the Minister of Finance, and yet the Minister of Finance has to live with the electoral consequences.

Over time, governance changes are important as part of putting things at the Reserve Bank on a more conventional footing (relative to other central banks, and to the rest of the New Zealand public sector).   I think some legislative respecification of the statutory goal for monetary policy  –  along the lines Labour has suggested –  is probably appropriate: if nothing else, it reminds people why we do active monetary policy at all.   But on their own, those changes won’t make any material difference to the conduct of monetary policy  –  or even to the way the Bank communicates –  in the shorter-term (next couple of years) unless the right person is chosen as Governor.  Perhaps so much shouldn’t hang on one unelected individual, but in our system at present it does.

Symbols matter, but so does substance.  It will be interesting to see which turns out to matter more to a new government with New Zealand First support.

In closing, there is a long and interesting article in today’s Financial Times on some of the challenges – technical and political –  facing central bankers.  As the author notes, in many countries authorities are grappling with a mix that includes very low unemployment and little wage inflation.  In appointing a Governor for the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, it would be highly desirable to find someone who recognises, and internalises, that the challenges here are rather different.  Unlike the US, UK, or Japan (for example) New Zealand’s unemployment rate is still well above pre-recessionary levels –  when demographic factors are probably lowering the NAIRU –  and real wage inflation, while quite low in absolute terms, is running well ahead of (non-existent) productivity growth.    There are some other countries – the UK and Finland notably –  that also have non-existent productivity growth, but it is far from a universal story.  Productivity growth carries on in the US and Australia and (according to a commentary I read last night) in Japan real output per hour worked is up 8.5 per cent in the last five years (comparable number for New Zealand, zero).

Some of these issues are relevant to monetary policy (eg unemployment gaps) and some are relevant to medium-term competitiveness (wages rising ahead of productivity growth).  We should expect a Governor who can recognise the similarities between New Zealand’s experiences and those abroad, but also the significant differences, and who can talk authoritatively about what monetary policy can, and cannot, do to help.  Perhaps even, as a bonus, one who might even be able to provide some research and advice to governments on the nature of the economic issues that only governments can act to fix.

 

 

 

 

New Zealand First’s immigration policies

I was briefly half-encouraged when I heard that Metiria Turei had been attacking New Zealand First for having “racist” immigration policies.  Mostly it seemed like a further rather depressing attempt to suggest that any serious debate about New Zealand’s unusually large and ambitious immigration policy was illegitimate, all the while trying to look like the Greens were taking the high moral ground, even as their co-leader actually descended into mud-slinging and name-calling herself.   But….there was the hint there that perhaps New Zealand First actually had some distinctive immigration policies.  The last time I’d looked on the NZ First website what was notable mostly was how little material there was on immigration policy, and how few significant policy proposals.

But, no.    When I checked again yesterday, there still wasn’t much there.    From listening to Winston Peters over the years, or even just listening to the reaction to him, you might have supposed New Zealand First had some far-reaching and specific proposals that would change the face of immigration policy in New Zealand.  Instead what you find is this.

New Zealand First is committed to a rigorous and strictly applied immigration policy that serves New Zealand’s interests. Immigration should not be used as a source of cheap labour to undermine New Zealanders’ pay and conditions.

There have been numerous instances of administrative failure to apply immigration rules and standards.

New Zealand First will strengthen Immigration New Zealand to give it the capacity to apply immigration policy effectively.

New Zealand First will:

  • Make sure that Kiwi workers are at the front of the job queue.
  • Ensure that immigration policy is based on New Zealand’s interests and the main focus is on meeting critical skills gaps
  • Ensure family reunion members are strictly controlled and capped and there is fairness across all nationalities.
  • Ensure that there is effective labour market testing to ensure New Zealanders have first call on New Zealand jobs.
  • Introduce a cap on the number of older immigrants because of the impact on health and other services.
  • Make sure effective measures are put in place to stop the exploitation of migrant workers with respect to wages, safety and work conditions.  In Christchurch and elsewhere there is evidence of exploitation of migrant workers.
  • Develop strategies to encourage the regional dispersion of immigration to places other than Auckland. Auckland’s infrastructure is overloaded.
  • Remove the ability to purchase a pre-paid English lesson voucher to bypass the minimum English entry requirements.

And that is it.   I’m guessing that no one (or at least no political party) is going to disagree with anything in the first three mini-paragraphs.    But if no one is going to disagree, those words aren’t saying much either.

What about the specifics?   Everyone is going to sign on for avoiding the exploitation of migrant workers, even if reasonable people might differ on quite where the line would be drawn.  Even the current government took some steps in response to the Christchurch evidence.

The current labour market testing system may, or not, be working well, but on paper there are requirements in place that are supposed to prioritise potential New Zealand workers (three of the eight NZF bullet points).  Again, no one much  –  perhaps not even ACT or the New Zealand Initiative –  is going to disagree with the general goal, and nothing New Zealand First says here is very specific.  It all seems pretty mainstream stuff –  probably putting too much faith in the capabilities of MBIE for my own tastes.

New Zealand First wants to cap family union entry, and also cap the number of older people getting residence visas.  But again, how different is that to current policy, where applications for parent visas are currently suspended altogether?    Perhaps New Zealand First wants to go further in that direction than most, but it hardly has the ring of something very dramatically different.

And in calling for a larger proportion of migrants to be encouraged to places other than Auckland, NZ First seems quite consistent with the government’s policy of offering additional points for people with job offers in the regions.  And Labour want to allow regions to develop their own priority occupation lists.  Personally, I think all three are daft, and simply tend to lower further the average quality of the immigrants we get, but (sadly) there is nothing out of the mainstream in the direction NZ First seems to be proposing.

And that leaves the final bullet about English language requirements.  Without knowing anything much about it, on paper what NZ First is proposing looks reasonable enough (if we are going to have English language requirements, a prepaid voucher for a course one may never bother attending doesn’t look like much of a substitute.    But it is a level of detail that hardly seems likely to divide parties deeply.

And quite what qualifies as “racist” there –  and Turei was explicitly talking about “policies” –  is beyond me.  Except of course that she and her co-leader (the latter in his speech last week) seem determined to insist that no legitimate discussion or debate is possible about New Zealand’s unusually large immigration policy –  unless, of course, they are proposing things, in which case presumably we can all be assured of their virtue and rectitude.

What is more striking is that, for all the speeches and interviews, there is nothing in that New Zealand First list that would make any very material difference to the expected net inflow of non-citizens.   In particular, there is nothing at all about the overall level of residence approvals.  Reading this list, NZ First appears to be comfortable with a residence approvals target of around 45000 per annum (three times, per capita, the US rate of approvals), and it is the number of residence approvals that will, over time, determine the contribution of immigration to population growth, pressure on resources or whatever.     There is also nothing at all on provisions around international students, nothing about working holiday visas, and nothing specific on temporary work visas.

If one took this page of policy seriously, one could vote for NZ First safe in the expectation that nothing very much would change at all about the broad direction, or scale, of our immigration policy.     Of course, there would be precedent for that.  The last times New Zealand First was part of a government, nothing happened about immigration either.

Perhaps there is still some major announcement with some more substantive policy specifics still to come.  I see that the New Zealand First conference is being held this coming weekend.    Perhaps that will be the occasion.   But at present, there is very little there, and most of what there is isn’t a million miles from where the other parties –  including the government –  seem to have been.

Is there a Singaporean idyll?

Winston Peters was interviewed on the weekend TV current affairs shows.  Any sense of specifics on his party’s immigration policy seemed lacking – perhaps apart from something on work rights for foreign students.  But I rather liked his line that while ministers and officials have been telling us for years that we have a highly-skilled immigration policy, all we hear now is all manner of industries employing mostly quite low-skilled people telling us how difficult any cut back in non-citizen immigration would be.

But what really caught my attention was when, in his TVNZ interview, Peters reiterated his view that what New Zealand really needs, in reforming monetary policy and the Reserve Bank, is a Singapore-style system of exchange rate management.    It was also highlighted in his speech on economic policy last week.  It is clear, specific, unmistakeable….and deeply flawed.   It seems to be a response to an intuition that there is something wrong about the New Zealand exchange rate.    In that, he is in good company.   The IMF and OECD have raised concerns over the years.  And so have successive Reserve Bank Governors.   I share the concern, and I devoted an entire paper to the issue at a conference on exchange rate issues that was hosted by the Reserve Bank and Treasury a few years ago, and which was pitched at the level of the intelligent layperson interested in these issues.   Another paper looked at a variety of alternative possible regimes, including (briefly, from p 45) that of Singapore.

What is the Singaporean system?  In addition to the brief summary in the RBNZ paper I linked to in the previous paragraph, there is a good and quite recent summary of the system in a paper published by the BIS written by the Deputy Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore MAS).

The key feature of the system is the MAS does not set an official interest rate (something like the OCR).  Rather, they set a target path (with bands) for the trade-weighted value of the Singaporean dollar, and intervene directly in the foreign exchange market to manage fluctuations around that path.   There is a degree of ambiguity about the precise parameters, but the system is pretty well understood by market participants.    Interest rates of Singapore dollar instruments are then set in the market, in response to domestic demand and supply forces, and market expectations of the future path of the Singapore dollar.    It has some loose similarities with the sort of approach to monetary policy operations the Reserve Bank of New Zealand adopted for almost 10 years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and which we finally abandoned in 1997 (actually while Winston Peters was Treasurer).   It is also not dissimilar to the approach –  the crawling peg –  used in New Zealand from 1979 to 1982 (at a time when international capital flows were much more restricted).

There is no particular reason why a country cannot peg its exchange rate, provided it is willing to subordinate all other instruments of macro policy (and short-term outcomes) to the maintenance of the peg.  It is what Denmark does, pegging to the euro.  Singapore’s isn’t a fixed peg, but the macroeconomics around the choice are much the same.

It is a model that can work just fine when the economies whose currencies one is pegging to are very similar to one’s own.  Denmark probably qualifies. In fact, Denmark could usually be thought of as, in effect, having the euro, but without a seat around the decisionmakers’ table.

It doesn’t work well at all when the interest rates you own economy needs are materially higher than those needed in the economies one is pegging too.    Ireland and Spain, in the years up to 2007, are my favourite example.  Both countries probably needed interest rates more like those New Zealand had.  In fact, what they got was the much lower German interest rates.  That had some advantages for some firms.  But the bigger story was a massive asset and credit boom, materially higher inflation than in the core countries, and eventually a very very nasty and costly bust.  Oh, in the process of the boom the real exchange rates of Spain and Ireland rose substantially anyway.    Because although nominal exchange rate choices –  the things that involve central banks –  can affect the real exchange rate in the short-term, the real exchange rate is normally much more heavily influenced by things that central banks have no control over at all.

One can, in part, understand the allure of Singapore. It is, in many respects, one of the most successful economic development stories of the post-war era.   Productivity levels (real GDP per hour worked) are now similar to those of the United States, and places like France, Germany and the Netherlands, and real GDP per capita is higher still.   You might value democracy and freedom of speech (I certainly do), but if Singapore’s achievement is a flawed one, it is still a quite considerable one.  And if Singapore is todaya big lender to the rest of the world, it wasn’t always so. Like New Zealand (or Australia or the US) net foreign capital inflows played a big part for a long time.  As recently as the early 1980s, Singapore was running annual current account deficits of around 10 per cent of GDP.

And the Singaporean model is not one of an absolutely fixed exchange rate.  It is a managed regime (historically, “managed” in all sorts of ways, including direct controls and strong moral suasion).  It produces a fairly high degree of short-term stability in the basket measure of the Singapore dollar.      But it works, to the extent it does, mostly because the SGD interest rates consistent with domestic medium-term price stability in Singapore are typically a bit lower than those in other advanced countries (in turn a reflection of the large current account surpluses Singapore now runs –  national savings rates far outstripping desired domestic investment).  As the Reserve Bank paper I linked to earlier noted

From 1990 to 2011, the average short term Singapore government borrowing rate was 1.8 percent p.a. below returns on the US Treasury bill.

Those are big differences (materially larger than the difference between the two countries’ average inflation rates).  And they mean that Singapore dollar fixed income assets are not particularly attractive to foreign investment funds.  By contrast, New Zealand’s short-term real and nominal interest rates are almost always materially higher than those in other advanced countries.   Partly as a result, even though Singapore’s economy is now materially larger than New Zealand’s, there is less international trade in the Singapore dollar than in the New Zealand dollar.

Winston Peters has talked about wanting a lower and less volatile exchange rate.  He has given no numbers, but lets do a thought experiment with some illustrative numbers.  The Reserve Bank’s TWI this afternoon is just above 75.  Suppose one thought that was, in some sense, 20 per cent too high, and so wanted to target the TWI in a band centred on 60, allowing fluctuations perhaps 5 per cent either side of the midpoint (so a range of 57 to 63).    What would happen?

The Minister of Finance might instruct the Reserve Bank to stand in the market to cap the exchange rate (TWI) at 63.   If our interest rates didn’t change, the Reserve Bank would be overwhelmed with sellers (of foreign exchange) wanting to buy the cheap New Zealand dollar.  After all, you could now earn New Zealand interest rates –  much higher than those abroad –  with very little downside risk (certainly much less than there is now).  In the jargon, people talk about “cheap entry levels”.   There is no technical obstacle to all this.  The Reserve Bank has a limitless supply of New Zealand dollars, but in exchange would receive a huge pool of foreign exchange reserves (it is quite conceivable that that pool could be several multiples of the size of New Zealand’s GDP, so large are the markets and so small is New Zealand).

Ah, but the Singaporean option doesn’t involve interest rates remaining at current levels.  Rather, they are now set in the market.  And so, presumably, our interest rates would fall, probably very considerably.  In the current environment, they might even go a little negative.   That would deal with the short-term funding cost problem associated with the huge pool of reserves.  But what would happen in New Zealand with (a) a much lower exchange rate, (b) much lower interest rates, and (c) all other characteristics of the economy unchanged?   The answer isn’t that different to what we saw in Spain and Ireland.  Asset prices would soar, credit growth would soar, general goods and services inflation would pick up quite considerably.  Of course, there would be more real business investment and more exports, at least in the short term.  And that would look appealing, but as time went by –  and it wouldn’t take many years –  the real exchange rate would be rising quite quickly and substantially (as domestic inflation exceeded that abroad).  Export firms would be squeezed again.   If anything, the higher domestic inflation would lower domestic real interest rates even more, so the credit and asset boom would continue.  And before too long it would end very badly.

That might sound over-dramatic.  And if the ambition was simply to stabilise the exchange rate around current levels, things probably wouldn’t go too badly for a while.  But Peters has been pretty clear that his aim is a lower exchange rate, not just a less volatile one.

The lesson?  You simply cannot ignore the structural features of the economy that give rise to persistently high real interest rates, and a high real exchange rate.  And those features have nothing whatever to do with the Reserve Bank or monetary policy.    They are about forces, incentives etc that influence the supply of national savings, and the demand for domestic investment (at any given interest rate).   All that ground is covered in my earlier paper linked to above.

Of course, the Singaporeans also increasingly can’t ignore those forces.  Decades ago, global financial markets weren’t that well-integrated, and the Singaporean web of controls was pretty extensive.  For some decades, even as Singaporean productivity growth far-outstripped that of other advanced countries, Singapore’s real exchange rate was not only pretty stable, it was falling.  Here is a chart of the BIS measure of Singapore’s real exchange rate all the way back to 1964.   The current system of exchange rate management didn’t start until about 1980.

Sing RER

It was, in many ways, an extraordinary transfer from Singaporean consumers to Singapore-operating exporters.  The international purchasing power the economic success should have afforded consumers and citizens kept getting pushed into the future.

But even in Singapore, these things don’t last forever.  Look at that last 10 years or so, when the real exchange rate has appreciated by around 35 per cent.   The real value of the SGD is still miles lower than where long-term economic fundamentals suggest they should be –  consistent that, the current surplus is still around 18 per cent of GDP –  but there has been a lot of change in its value over that time.  For many firms even in Singapore that must have been a challenge.  With US interest rates near-zero for much of that time, historically low Singaporean rates will have afforded the authorites fewer degrees of freedom than they had had previously.

(The Singapore authorities impose all sorts of other controls, including their compulsory private savings scheme and increasingly onerous direct controls on private credit.  I’m not going there in this post, partly because it will already be long enough, and partly because what I’ve heard from NZ First is about the exchange rate system in isolation).

Singapore is a (hugely-distorted) economic success story in many respects.  Some mix of the people, the policies and institutions, and the favourable geographical location all helped.   Nonetheless, it some ways it is an odd example for New Zealand First to favour.

For example, Singapore has had an extremely rapid population growth, mostly immigration-fuelled, in recent decades.  Here is a chart of Singapore’s population growth and that of Australia and New Zealand.

sing popn

(On my telling, Singapore has had opportunities, and lots of savings, and thus rapid population growth made sense, enabling more of those opportunities to be captured, even while real interest rates stayed lower than elsewhere –  although not, presumably, as low as they would otherwise have been.)

And Singapore’s economy is pretty volatile.  Sadly, the IMF doesn’t publish output gap estimates for Singapore, but the MAS estimates (in that document I linked to earlier) suggest much more volatility than we see in New Zealand or most other advanced economies.  And here is annual growth in real per capita GDP for New Zealand, Australia and Singapore.

sing real gdp

Hugely more volatile than anything we are accustomed to (and in recent years, interestingly, not even materially higher).

And for all that the MAS likes to emphasise the close connection between the exchange rate and inflation, here are the inflation rates of the three countries.

sing inflation

On average, the differences aren’t that large, but even in the last 15 years or so Singapore’s inflation rate has been more volatile than those of Australia and New Zealand.

It isn’t really clear that Singapore’s system is even serving them that well these days.

But what of exchange rate comparisons?  You might have supposed that Singapore’s exchange rate was a lot less volatile than New Zealand’s.  But here, from the RB website, is the monthly data for the SGD and the NZD, in terms of the USD since 1999.

SGD

And, yes, the New Zealand dollar is more volatile in the short-term, but even there over the last seven years or so the differences are pretty small.   And if hedging isn’t always easy, particularly for firms without large physical assets, it is a lot easier to hedge those sorts of short-term fluctuations than it is the longer-term real exchange rate uncertainty.  (And, of course, given Singapore’s faster productivity growth, you might still be troubled that our exchange rate has more or less kept pace with theirs, but that is a real and structural issues, not one that can be fixed by fiddling with the exchange rate system.)

As it happens, Australia is our largest trade and investment partner.   Here is how our exchange rate, relative to the Australian dollar, compares with the Singapore dollar relative to the US dollar.

SGD and NZDAUD

It is an impressive degree of stability.  Again, in the very short term the New Zealand exchange rate is a bit more volatile, but it isn’t obvious that for longer-term planning purposes New Zealand exporters have had it tougher –  on the volatility front at least –  than those operating from Singapore.

And, as a final chart, this one uses the BIS’s broad real exchange rate indices to illustrate movements in the real exchange rates of Singapore, New Zealand, and (another export-oriented development success story) Korea.

SGD NZD and KRW

Singapore’s real exchange rate has certainly been the most stable of the three, but if anything Korea’s has been more volatile than New Zealand’s.   It would clutter the gaph to have added it, but Japan’s real exchange rate has also been more volatile than New Zealand’s.

There are real exchange rate issues for New Zealand.  The fact that our real exchange rate hasn’t fallen, even as relative productivity performance has fallen away badly, is a crucial symptom in our overall long-term disappointing economic performance.  It has meant we’ve been less open to the world (lower exports, lower imports) than one would have expected, or hoped.   But the issue isn’t primarily one of volatility –  which is mostly what the Singaporean system now tries to address –  but of longer-term average levels.   This real exchange rate symptom appears to be linked to whatever pressures (NB, not superior economic performance) have given us persistently higher real interest rates than the rest of the world.   New Zealand First, and other parties, would be much better advised to focus their analysis, and proposed policy solutions, on measures that might directly address these real (as distinct from monetary) issues.    As it happens, a much lower trend rate of immigration seems likely to be a strong contender for such a policy –  taking pressure off domestic demand for resources, and freeing up resources to compete internationally.     Singapore simply isn’t the answer.