Productivity: still doing poorly

I had been planning to write today about some of the recent Reserve Bank material on electronic currency.  I even took the papers away with me yesterday to read on some flights, but in the course of that reading  –  coincidentally, en route to another funeral – I discovered that a former Reserve Bank colleague, only a year or two older than me, had died a couple of months ago.    We hadn’t been close, but I’d known him off and on for 35 years beginning with an honours course at VUW in 1983, and when I’d last seen him six months or so ago he’d been confident the cancer was beaten.   What left me a bit sick at heart was that I had commented here last month, moderately critically, on a recent Reserve Bank Bulletin article of which he had been a co-author.   None of the comments were, as I reread them, personal.  But I’d have written differently had I known.  So I’m going to put aside issues around the Reserve Bank for a few weeks (and the blog is taking a holiday next week anyway).

So instead, having listened to a few upbeat stories in the last few days, including the IMF mission chief for New Zealand on Radio New Zealand this morning, talking about the “sweet spot” the New Zealand economy was in etc, I thought it was time to update some productivity charts.

Here is real GDP per hour worked for New Zealand.

real GDP phw jul 18

I’ve marked the average for the last year, and for the 12 months five years’ previously.  If anything, things have been going backwards a bit for the last three years, and for the last five or sx years taken together, productivity growth has averaged no better than 0.3 per cent per annum.  Some “sweet spot”, especially when our starting position relative to other advanced economies was already so far behind.

And here is the comparison with Australia –  in many respects the OECD economy with most in common with New Zealand (distance, resource dependence, Anglo institutions), and also the exit option for New Zealanders.

real GDP nz and aus jul 18

In 1989, when this chart starts, New Zealand was already behind Australia.   Since then, we’ve lost another 15 percentage points of ground, about 0.5 per cent per annum.  A decade ago perhaps one could have mounted an argument that the decline had come to an end: looked at in the right light, perhaps we were even showing signs of some modest closing of the gap.  But then we took another step down, and the rate of decline in the last decade as a whole has been about the same as that for the full period since 1989.

For almost a decade now, I’ve been sobered by the performance of the former eastern-bloc countries that are now part of the OECD.  Thirty years ago, when we –  already a market economy –  were in the throes of reform, they were just beginning the journey to freedom (Estonia and Latvia were still actually, involuntarily, part of the Soviet Union).   Their starting point was, of course, a great deal worse than ours –  for all the early 80s talk of New Zealand having an economy akin to a Polish shipyyard –  but the common economic goal was catching-up, reversing decades of relative decline.

In the decades since, New Zealand has lost ground relative to the richer countries of the OECD (and, as per the chart above, has lost a lot of ground relative to Australia, even more recently).  The former eastern-bloc countries have done a great deal of catching up.  They still have a long way to go to catch that group of highly productive northern European economies (Belgium, Netherlands, France, Germany, Denmark), but New Zealand is on track to be overtaken: on OECD numbers Slovakia now has real GDP per hour worked higher than that in NEw Zealand.

There are seven former eastern-bloc countries in the OECD.  The OECD is filling in 2017 data only slowly, and so in this chart I’ve shown real GDP per hour worked for New Zealand relative to the median of the six former eastern-bloc countries for which there is 2017 data (the country for which they don’t yet have 2017 data is Poland, which managed 7 per cent productivity growth in the four years to 2016, a period when New Zealand –  on the measure the OECD uses –  had none).

eastern bloc

Some of these former eastern-bloc countries had a very rocky ride (notably Estonia and Latvia, which ran currency board arrangements in the 00s, and had massive credit booms, and then busts), but the trend is still one way.  They are catching up with us, and we aren’t catching up with the sort of countries we aspire to match.

The pace of decline (New Zealand relative to these former eastern-bloc countries) has slowed, as you would expect (in 1995 it was still quite early days for post-communist adjustment) but the scale of the chart shouldn’t lead us to minimise the recent underperformance.   In 2007, we had an economy that was 20 per cent more productive than the median former eastern bloc OECD member, and last year that margin was only 12 per cent.

The measure of success in this economy shouldn’t be whether we stay richer and more productive than Slovenia or the Czech Republic.  All of us are a long way off the pace, far from the overall productivity frontier (best outcomes).    But what these former eastern bloc countries help highlight is that convergence can and does happen, if you have the right policies and institutions for your country (in all its relevant particulars).  Policymakers here used to genuinely believe that. It is no longer clear that they – or their Treasury advisers –  any longer do.

On which note, Paul Conway of the Productivity Commission recently published an interesting article in an international productivity journal on New Zealand’s productivity situation and policy options.  Commission staff were kind enough to send me a link.  Paul Conway has a slightly more optimistic take on the last decade or so than I do, but common ground is in recognising the total failure to achieve any catch-up or convergence.  There is a lot in Paul’s article –  which, not surprisingly, is not inconsistent with his earlier “narrative” on such issues that he wrote for the Commission itself, and which I wrote about here.   I will come back later and write about Paul’s analysis and prescription –  there is a lot there, some of which I agree with strongly, and some of which I’m much more sceptical of.  For my money, he materially underweights the importance of a misaligned real exchange rate as a key symptom, which has skewed incentives all across the economy.     But it is good to see public service analysts contributing substantively to the (rather limited) debate on these issues.


A puzzling government economic target

An occasional reader pointed out to me a government economic target that I wasn’t aware of.   Late last year, Communications Minister Clare Curran announced that

“The Chief Technology Officer will be responsible for preparing and overseeing a national digital architecture, or roadmap, for the next five to ten years,” Ms Curran says.

“This Government intends to close the digital divides by 2020, and to make ICT the second largest contributor to GDP by 2025.

At least one tech firm seems to think that goal is in the coalition agreement, although I couldn’t see it there.

There doesn’t seem to be much around on this goal, which is perhaps not surprising as it doesn’t seem a particularly realistic or well thought-through goal.  There are no obvious definitions or compators.    Would such an outcome even be desirable?  How would we know?

But I did find this chart in an MBIE report from last year, using data that isn’t readily available to the public.

ICT mbie

Which looks like a reasonable aount of activity, except of course that GDP in 2015 was $230 billion. so these ICT sectors in total account for about 4 per cent of GDP.

The OECD doesn’t seem to have data for all member countries, but I found this chart.


New Zealand’s ICT share doesn’t seem out of line with (although perhaps a bit less than) the median OECD country.

But then I went to Infoshare to look at the breakdown of GDP by production sector.  These are the sectors that were bigger than MBIE’s ICT number in the year to March 2016 (which presumably aligns most closely with the 2015 data they quote).

GDP in year ending March 2016
Construction 15,290
Wholesale Trade 12,691
Retail Trade 11,057
Transport, Postal and Warehousing 12,377
Financial and Insurance Services 14,604
Rental, Hiring and Real Estate Services 18,021
Owner-Occupied Property Operation (National Accounts Only) 16,429
Professional, Scientific and Technical Services 19,935
Education and Training 11,436
Health Care and Social Assistance 15,095

Which industries, I wondered, did the government envisage being displaced by the ICT sector?  For example, the government also seemed to be aiming to build a lot more houses, and encouraging more people into education and training.   Which industry do you expect will still be ahead of ICT by 2025 (only seven years away now)?

And how realistic is any of this anyway?   That MBIE chart above looks quite impressive at first glance.  But as a share of total GDP, those ICT subsectors in total did not change from 2007 to 2015.   What policy changes, already announced or in the works, are likely to transform the prospects of these sub-sectors in just a few years?

In a post last year, I pointed to some other indicators of how these technology sectors just haven’t been growing to anything like the extent the boosters would like us to believe (although of course there are individual firm success stories).   Sadly, of course, that is really the story of our tradables sector as a whole –  which has managed no per capita growth at all this century.

UPDATE: From some digging around it appears that the government’s target, championed by Clare Curran is even flakier than I imagined.  Apparently at a recent select committee hearing she claimed that the technology sector was New Zealand’s third largest exporter and that she hoped it would become the “second largest contributor to the economy”.   This “third largest exporter” claim appears to come from last year’s TIN report (critiqued here), where the total foreign sales of NZ-owned tech firms are treated as New Zealand exports (for comparisons with official export data of other sectors).  As I noted in my critique, this is a nonsense claim: much of the value in many of these foreign sales is generated abroad (eg both F&P companies have large manufacturing operations abroad).  In their 2017 ICT report, MBIE talk of ICT exports of around $1 billion per annum (about 0.3 per cent of GDP).    As I showed in my earlier post, tech-like services exports as a share of GDP has barely changed this century (and the profitability of New Zealand firms operating abroad also seemed pretty weak).

To put the numbers in perspective, here is an extract from a recent SNZ table

Total exports
By top 30 categories
Year ended March
Commodity / service Exports (fob)
2017 2018
NZ$(million) % of total NZ$(million) % of total
Milk powder, butter, and cheese  11,547  16.5  14,174  18.2
Business and other personal travel  10,012  14.3  10,879  14.0
Meat and edible offal  5,983  8.5  6,797  8.7
Logs, wood, and wood articles  4,133  5.9  4,828  6.2
Education travel  3,547  5.1  4,025  5.2
Fruit  2,758  3.9  2,648  3.4
Air transport  2,158  3.1  2,451  3.1
Wine  1,627  2.3  1,723  2.2
Mechanical machinery and equipment  1,596  2.3  1,683  2.2
Fish, crustaceans, and molluscs  1,586  2.3  1,619  2.1
Preparations of milk, cereals, flour, and starch  1,213  1.7  1,558  2.0
Miscellaneous edible preparations  1,162  1.7  1,305  1.7
Aluminium and aluminium articles  982  1.4  1,152  1.5
Electrical machinery and equipment  999  1.4  1,071  1.4
Casein and caseinates  826  1.2  904  1.2
Optical, medical, and measuring equipment  829  1.2  873  1.1
Wood pulp and waste paper  721  1.0  858  1.1
Telecommunications, computer, and information services  875  1.2  848  1.1

Relative poverty: old and young

When I was working on my lecture last month on productivity as the best sure basis for dealing with poverty across a society as whole, I did take the opportunity to read around some of the literature on child poverty in New Zealand.   A line that used to be quite common in the New Zealand debate was that we had high rates of child poverty but low rates of poverty among old people, and that this represented some mix of a misplaced sense of priorities and some imbalance in political clout.  On checking, I see that I previously used the “low poverty rate among the elderly” argument myself in a published report.  On further checking, this was the sort of chart we used to see.

oecd elderly poverty chart 2000s

I’m fairly sceptical of these measures of poverty or deprivation.   They are mostly measures of (in)equality rather than of poverty, being calculated as the percentage of people in any particular group with incomes less than some threshold percentage (typically 50 or 60 per cent) of the (equivilised) median.     Real incomes for everyone could be doubled over time – by some mix of economic good fortune, innovation, and fine management –  and yet if the distribution of income didn’t change, we’d be told that exactly the same share of the population was still in “poverty”.  Sure, the detailed reports will specify that what they are measuring is relative “poverty”, but (a) that is almost a meaningless concept (whereas income or consumption inequality is not), and (b) the “relative” qualifier is usually too readily lost sight of once we shift from detailed technical reports to political debate and the like.     And so, a few months ago we had a  (very capable and well-regarded) visiting economist and politician noting in his lecture that child poverty rates (on these measures) were very similar in New Zealand and Australia, while failing to mention that average or median incomes in Australia are much higher in Australia than in New Zealand   People will be classified as “poor” in Australian who would be close to the median income in New Zealand.

Of course, there is a place for redistributive policies, but over time lifting overall rates of productivity make much more difference: the difference between the “poverty” most New Zealanders lived with (by today’s standards) when we were the richest country in the world a century ago, and the living standards of today.

But the specific point of this post, was this OECD chart I stumbled when I was thinking about poverty issues.  The differences in the differences between male and female rates look as though they could be interesting, but my focus is on the blue bars –  the number for the entire population aged over 65.

elderly poverty

OECD data used to (see first chart) suggest that New Zealand had some of the very lowest rates of elderly “poverty” anywhere.  But, apparently, that is no longer so.  On this measure –  using the 50th percentile –  New Zealand elderly “poverty” rates are still a little below the OECD total, and are actually a little above the OECD median (the countries labelled in italics are not OECD members).

And even in the days when numbers like those in the first chart were widely cited, people used to point out that it made quite a difference whether one looked at the 50th percentile, or (say) the 60th.  The widely-quoted child “poverty” measures in New Zealand typically use the 60th percentile.

Somehow I managed to find the underlying data for the elderly on the OECD website.  The tables say that there is a new measure being used since 2012 (and thus the difference between the first two charts).   Here is an aggregate chart showing the share of the population aged over 65 with income below 60 per cent of median equivilised disposable income (ie the same measure as in the OECD chart above, just using a different percentile threshold).  Here are the data for 2015 (or most recent).

elderly poverty 60%

I was quite taken aback when I saw those numbers.   The results of this new methodology are so different from those under the old methodology (at least for New Zealand) that one would need to dig into the new and old methodologies to be at all comfortable with the results.  After all, it is not as if NZS policy has changed materially over the last 15 years or so, and we know that a relatively high share of New Zealand over-65s are still in the workforce.    And given the universal coverage of NZS, I find it a little difficult to believe that our elderly (relative) “poverty” rates are so much higher than those in, say, the United States.   Then again, it is interesting to see the Australian numbers – especially when we hear occasional calls to adopt something more like the Australian system (compulsory private savings and a means-tested age pension) here.

But if the OECD numbers are to be taken seriously at all, it looks as if  –  relative to the rest of the OECD –  our child poverty scores might be not much different than those for our elderly.   This is the OECD data on child “poverty” using the same 50th percentile benchmark as in the fancy OECD chart above.

child poverty 2014

New Zealand almost identical to the OECD average.

There will, unfortunately always be pockets of extreme deprivation and perhaps even absolute poverty (often perhaps not well-captured in these sorts of aggregate charts).  Some of that –  even after welfare system redistribution – will be about culture, some about personal poor choices, and some about misfortune.  Some of it will even be about atrocious policies –  for example, land use law in New Zealand.

But what we do know, with a very high degree of confidence, is that overall average material living standards –  for children, the old, and everyone in between –  in New Zealand are well below those in most of the “old” OECD countries, that we used to far exceed.  Remember the statistic I’ve quoted previously: it would take a two-thirds lift in average productivity in New Zealand to match that on average in Germany, France, Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, and the United States.   The best way to sustainably –  including politically sustainably – and substantially lift the living standards of those at the bottom is to lift productivity across the economy as a whole.  And there is little sign that the government or the Opposition have any ideas as to how to turn the decades of underperformance on that score around,


The government consults on slashing productivity growth

Since the current government took office, I’ve highlighted from time to time (eg here) the tension between the rhetoric about the desire to lift New Zealand’s productivity performance (poor for decades, woeful in the last five years or so) and to increase the outward orientation of the economy,  and the specific policy promises which mostly seem likely to work in exactly the opposite direction.

The determination to reduce carbon emissions even more aggressively than the previous government’s goal, especially while sticking with a largely unchanged immigration policy that continued to drive up the population, seemed a prime example. I didn’t have any numbers, but the direction of the effect seemed pretty clear.

But now the government has published some numbers, which really should be getting a lot of attention.    Yesterday the Green Party leader James Shaw (Minister of Climate Change) launched a consultative document on what form the “net zero by 2050” target might actually take.  Perhaps naively, I’d assumed they had meant what they said, but in fact they are consulting on three quite different variants.

  • Net zero carbon dioxide by 2050: this target would reduce net carbon dioxide emissions in New Zealand to zero by 2050 (but not other gases like methane or nitrous oxide, which predominantly come from agriculture).
  • Net zero long-lived gases and stabilised short-lived gases by 2050: this target would reduce emissions of long-lived gases (including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide) in New Zealand to net zero by 2050, while stabilising emissions of short-lived gases (including methane).
  • Net zero emissions by 2050: this target would reduce net emissions across all greenhouse gases to zero by 2050.

The third of those was, I think, was what most people had in mind.

Somewhere in the consultative document the first of these options is described as not being that different, in overall effect, from the target put in place by the previous government.

At the front of the report, the language –  not just from the Minister but from the MfE bureaucrats is very upbeat.    From the bureaucrats’ Executive Summary

This is our chance to build a high value economy that will hold us in good stead for the future. By upgrading our economy and preparing for the future, we can help make sure quality of life continues to improve for generations to come.

To read that, you’d suppose that pursuing ambitious emissions targets would make us richer, and better off in material terms.

A few paragraphs on the MfE officials suggests that the British have already shown us the way

Our economy is already dynamic and constantly adjusting to change. Jobs are continually created and lost. For some of us, the changes through the transition could be small or not noticeable – we could be driving vehicles powered by 100 per cent renewable electricity. For others, the changes could be bigger. The transition will affect how we travel, use land and what we produce and consume. Other countries, such as the UK, have shown that it is possible to reduce their emissions while growing their economy and maintaining a high standard of living.

This is probably what they had in mind (using OECD data which still only goes up to 2015).

emissions uk nz 1

That certainly makes the UK look good relative to us.

Then again, here is the emissions data for the two countries per unit of GDP.

emissions uk nz 2

The drop in emissions per unit of GDP has been almost exactly the same, over 25 years, in the United Kingdom as in New Zealand.   Our numbers are a lot higher than those in the UK but (for example) their economy trades with bankers/lawyers etc and ours trade with sheep and cattle.   There are different opportunities and different emissions profiles.

(And, as it happens, productivity growth in the UK in the last decade –  although not prior to that – has been materially worse than that in New Zealand.)

So the upbeat story about other countries having blazed a prosperous trail doesn’t really seem to have anything to it, at least in the one example MfE cites.  The main difference between the total emissions profiles is simply that we’ve adopted policies that raised our population much faster than the population growth in the UK.  It really is almost as simple as that.

But after the upbeat introduction, a bit of realism starts to creep in.

As we reduce emissions, the economy will continue to grow but possibly less quickly.

Only “possibly” though, although one’s confidence should have been waning already when a few lines later one reads that

We will need to invest in innovation and plant a lot more trees, to ensure we maintain a strong economy over the coming decades.

Because we all know that advanced countries get and stay rich by planting (lots and lots of) trees.  At best, it seems that they are likely to be a mitigant –  absorbing carbon emissions possibly more cheaply than some other methods.  They aren’t likely to add to our productivity or per capita income.

To the credit of the Ministry, they have had some modelling estimates done, and the Minister has allowed the summary results to be published.   It is not very satisfactory that the full model results have not been published yet, in what is a fairly short consultative period.  In fact, the suggestion is that the modelling work hasn’t even been finished yet

This and future material will be published on the Ministry for the Environment website as it is finalised.

But better to have what they did publish than to have to try to get it out of them via the Official Information Act.

NZIER was commissioned to do some modelling on the impact on GDP of the various net zero target options.  This is the table reproduced in the report.

emissions NZIER

As MfE observes

The analysis by NZIER suggests that GDP will continue to grow but will be in the range of 10 per cent to 22 per cent less in 2050, compared with taking no further action on climate change.

(Note that emissions per unit of GDP have been steadily trending down for decades as it is –  see first chart above.)

These are really big numbers.  I have never before heard of a government consulting on a proposal to cut the size of the (per capita) economy by anything from 10 to 22 per cent.  And, even on their numbers, those estimates could be an understatement.

The baseline assumptions NZIER have used produce average real GDP growth over 2017 to 2050 of 2.2 per cent.  They do not lay out the assumptions in more detail, but Statistics New Zealand population projections show average population growth over that period of 0.7 per cent per annum, so they seem to be assuming baseline productivity growth of something like 1.5 per cent.  That would be high by the standards of recent decades, but (except for rhetorical purposes) it does not matter very much: the focus is on the difference the various carbon emissions targets make to future productivity growth.

The numbers in the table do not show the unadorned comparisons.    They helpfully show the difference the varying degrees of ambition in the possible net emissions targets makes: the more ambitious the target, the worse the expected economic growth.  But in each of the three different scenarios (described in the very top line of the table), the modellers assume that the magic fairy helps out.     They assume faster rates of innovation in these particular sectors, over and above what is embedded in the baseline assumed rate of productivity growth.   This is how they describe it:

  • faster energy innovation occurs, driven by higher emissions prices and transitional policies that double the baseline energy efficiency trends across all industries and provide a shift to 98 per cent renewable energy by 2035 with the remaining 2 per cent used being gasfired generation in dry years only
  • faster transport innovation occurs, driven by higher emissions prices and transitional policies that increase electric vehicle uptake to 95 per cent of the light vehicle fleet and 50 per cent of the heavy vehicle fleet by 2050
  • faster agricultural innovation occurs, this sees a one-off innovation of a methane vaccine introduced in 2030 being adopted across all farms, which reduces dairy emissions by 30 per cent and sheep and beef emissions by 20 per cent. A reduction in global demand for dairy (11 per cent fall in 2050 output from 2015 levels) and sheep and beef (15 per cent fall) is experienced as consumer preferences shift towards lower emissions intensive foodstuffs, such as synthetic meats.

All of which might be fine, but there seems to be no allowance at all for the possibility that higher input costs etc might discourage investment in innovation (relative to baseline) elsewhere in the economy.  Affordable energy was, after all, a huge contributor to economic development in the last few centuries.

So on the best-case magic ferry scenario (the furthest right column) –  with much increased innovation in these sectors, and no offset elsewhere –  the full net zero target by 2050 would result in GDP in 2050 being a full 10 per cent lower than otherwise  (with 20 per cent of assumed overall productivity growth just given up).

If we only get the added innovation in agriculture, or only get it in transport and energy, the sacrifice is perhaps 40 per cent of all productivity growth (the difference between the 2.2% GDP growth baseline, of which productivity growth is about 1.5%, and the 1.5% and 1.6% GDP growth scenarios (in which productivity growth is only 0.8 or 0.9 per cent)).     A sacrifice of 0.7 per cent annual productivity growth for 33 years means accepting living standards 26 per cent lower than otherwise by 2050.

Again, to the credit of the government, they are also explicit about where the costs are likely to fall

Modelling shows the impact of domestic climate action would be felt more strongly by lower income households, because a higher proportion of their spending is on products and services that are likely to increase in cost as we reduce emissions across the economy.
Our modelling suggests the households that are in the lowest 20 per cent bracket for income may be more than twice as affected, on a relative basis, than those households with an average income.

Quite breathtaking really.   We will give up –  well, actually, take from New Zealanders –  up to a quarter of what would have been their 2050 incomes, and in doing so we will know those losses will be concentrated disproportionately on people at the bottom.   Sure, they talk about compensation measures

The Government has a number of tools it could choose to use to compensate affected households for higher costs, such as tax or welfare measures.

But the operative word there is could.  The track record of governments –  of any stripe –  compensating losers from any structural reforms is pretty weak, and it becomes even less likely when the policy being proposed involves the whole economy being a lot smaller than otherwise, so that there is less for everyone to go around.  The political economy of potential large scale redistribution just does not look particularly attractive or plausible (and higher taxes to do such redistribution would have their own productivity and competitiveness costs).

I guess I am impressed that the government was willing to publish a document suggesting adopting a policy which it openly documents would come at such a large potential cost to New Zealanders (substantial even if the magic fairy comes to our aid to the extent assumed in these scenarios).  It must surely be a first in history.   No one asked the citizens of, say, 1948 Czechoslovakia if they wanted to be impoverished (relative to a faster growing West).  But it is hard to see what is in for New Zealanders –  lagging badly behind other advanced countries on productivity anyway, with constant complaints about child (and other) poverty) – to just happily sign in to such a huge economic sacrifice?   And for what?

I guess these targets are advocated by zealots, but even the zealots surely recognise that what New Zealand does is not going to change the climate, and that many countries already richer and more productive than we are are proposing adjustments that are materially less costly or demanding that what the New Zealand government is proposing here.   I am not suggesting we can or should do nothing –  there is some minimum effort probably required to ward off the threat of trade sanctions –  but surely on any reasonable cost-benefit assessment of the interests of New Zealanders, we would be confronting these costs – the wilfully given up opportunities for our kids and grandchildren –  and pulling back?  Or we might be thinking again about whether deliberately boosting the population –  bringing people to a country with high baseline emissions per unit of GDP –  is sensible for the world, or (more importantly) for our own people.  I would be keen to see a variant of the NZIER results in which the population growth (and thus baseline emissions growth) was materially lower than what is assumed, based on current immigration policy.

To repeat, I would be surprised if ever before in history a democratic government has consulted on proposals to reduce the material wellbeing of its own people by up to 25 per cent.      Wars, of course, come at a very considerable cost –  and sometimes are worth fighting –  but again, I doubt any democracy (or perhaps even any tyranny) ever entered a war thinking that as a result of doing so they would be so much poorer 30 years on.  It is simply a breathtaking proposition –  the more so in a country that at the moment struggles to achieve any material productivity growth at all.

And as a reminder of what productivity means, see this recent post.

UPDATE: One issue I didn’t spot earlier is how there can be no marginal cost in going from the 75% to the net zero option, under either of the two scenarios shown.  To one decimal place, the assumed average growth rates are identical.  Given that going from 75% to net zero involves dealing with the short-lived gases (from agriculture), which are some of the most intractable issues (without dramatically shrinking the industries), it is difficult to see that this particular model result can be plausible.   But, to the extent, that the model results are the same under the two alternative targets, it undermines the case made by some that this document represents the government trying to walk back the original commitment to (true) net zero.


Don’t just avoid the politically awkward issues

When in late April the Productivity Commission released its draft report on a transition to a low emissions economy, I took them to task for completely (and presumably consciously and deliberately) ignoring the role of New Zealand’s immigration policy in driving up New Zealand’s emissions –  albeit they acknowledged that “population growth” was a factor.  Perhaps more importantly, they didn’t address at all the possibility that –  however we got to where we are today – cuts to the target rate of non-citizen immigration might offer a more cost-effective way –  less damaging to productivity and the living standards of New Zealand –  of meeting the sort of carbon reduction targets governments commit themselves to.    I suggested that they were playing politics, trying to keep onside with a new government.

That still seems the most plausible explanation for the complete silence.   If they thought my argument was wrong, or had some modelling suggesting that other abatement strategies offered lower-cost adjustment, they could readily have reported those arguments and any such evidence.   But they just stayed silent.

The only real justification for having a body like the Productivity Commission –  funded by your taxes and mine –  is that they are at sufficient arms-length from ministers, and don’t just play political games, to say the uncomfortable, or to address the politically unpalatable issues and options.  Having a longer-term focus, if they don’t get traction today, they might tomorrow.

We should hope that even government departments would do that –  offering the sort of free and frank advice that Chris Hipkins was calling for yesterday – but too often they just won’t (and as I saw that last year when I OIAed MfE and MBIE and found that they’d offered no advice or analysis at all on the immigration/emissions/low-cost abatement nexus).  But it is inexcusable when an independent body like the Productivity Commission just rolls over and takes the path of least resistance.  As I noted in a post when the draft report was released

In the short run that might make it more likely they get a hearing from the government. In the long run, that sort of approach to issues won’t stand them  –  or the cause of good policymaking and analysis in New Zealand, already enfeebled enough – in good stead.

As I’ve said before, convinced as I am of my own arguments, I’m not complaining that the Productivity Commission doesn’t reach the same conclusion I do.  My complaint is that they haven’t even been willing to address the issue, when they know that it makes a real difference.    Confront the issue, look at the evidence and arguments, analyse and test them, and reach your (well-supported) conclusions (and leave the goverment to decide policy, sensible or otherwise).    But don’t just pretend there is no issue: that is a betrayal of your mandate from Parliament.

Submissions on the draft low emissions report close tomorrow.  I put in a brief submission this afternoon.

Submission to Productivity Commission climate inquiry draft report

There isn’t much new in it, but I ended this way

There probably won’t be off-the-shelf modelling exercises from other countries you can simply look to in evaluating such options  [low target immigration options] (and you are now under self-imposed time constraints, having failed to consider the issue in your draft report).    But in a sense that is the point of this submission.  The issues facing New Zealand in meeting emissions reduction objectives are different from those facing many other countries and we need analysis that takes specific accounts of the issues, options, and constraints that New Zealand itself faces.

 In conclusion, I would urge the Commission to begin to take seriously the role that rapid immigration policy led population growth has played in explaining the growth in New Zealand emissions since 1990, and the possible role that modifications to our immigration policy could play in facilitating a reduction in emissions, consistent with current or possible alternative official targets.   No doubt technological advances will offer options for relatively painlessly reducing emissions to some extent.  But those options will be available to all countries.  As official agencies already recognise, New Zealand faces some specific challenges that are quite different to those other advanced countries will be dealing with.  We make it much harder for ourselves to meet the emissions targets our governments have committed to if we persist with such an unusually large non-citizen immigration programme.    The aim of a successful adjustment to a low-emissions economy is not to don a hair shirt and “feel the pain”.  The aim should be to make the adjustment with as small a net economic cost to New Zealanders – as small a drain on our future material living standards – as possible.  Lowering the immigration target looks like an instrument that needs to be seriously considered if that goal is to be successfully pursued.   In particular, you cannot legitimately ignore the issue –  in what looks disconcertingly like a reluctance to tackle controversial or politically awkward options –  and still lay claim to being the source of independent fearless advice and analysis that is really the only good argument for having the Productivity Commission in the first place.

Leaving them with the visual reminder of the cross-country correlation between population growth and growth in total emissions (which relationship exists even just for agricultural emissions)

total emissions

and that, in New Zealand, with birth rates well below replacement for several decades, immigration is increasingly the main reason why the population is still growing much at all.

And immigration doesn’t appear to be making New Zealanders better off (higher productivity) just…..more congested, with higher house prices, and with more emissions that other (themselves costly) tools have to be adopted to offset or abate.

Lifting productivity (and fixing housing, etc): what I’d do

When, a week or so ago, I wrote about how our political (and bureaucratic) leaders appeared to have given up hope, and to have lost any serious interest in turning around New Zealand’s dismal long-term productivity performance (and even worse short-term performance), and linked to my recent speech on such themes, a few commenters asked what policies I would implement, given the option.  One was specific enough to invite a “top 10 policies” list.

In what follows, I’m not suggesting that all these proposals are equally important.  It is also worth recogising that some are designed to directly improve economic performance, at least one is primarily about compensating some potential losers who might otherwise be a roadblock in the way of overdue reform, and some at improving confidence in our political system and associated institutions.   Part of what needs to accompany any significant reform package is a strong accepted sense that the politicians making the changes are working first and foremost in the interests of New Zealanders and their families, people of all ages, stages, and levels on the socioeconomic scale.  Change is, almost inevitably, costly and disruptive to some –  one reason why it doesn’t happen –  but people can be ready to accept disruptive change if they recognise it as something we do together, rather than something being done to them.

Some of these policies were included in a call to embrace radical reform I outlined (and elaborated on more than I can do in this longer list) shortly after Jacinda Ardern became Labour Party leader.

  1. Cut the residence approvals target from the current 45000 per annum to a range of 10000 to 15000 per annum (in per capita terms, something similar to policy in the United States
    • within the residence policy, eliminate the preferential Pacific and Samoan quotas, to focus solely on skills, refugees (and foreign spouses of NZers)
    • make temporary work visas (maximum three years) generally available, subject to the employer paying an annual fee to the Crown of $20000 per annum per worker, or 10 per cent of salary whichever is larger,
    • eliminate most work rights for foreign students (other than Master/Phd)
    • remove the substantial subsidy for foreign PhD students
  2. Move to a Nordic system of taxing income, in which income from capital (profits, interest etc) is taxed at a considerably lower rate than income from labour (and considerably lower than at present –  say 15 per cent).
    • a progressive consumption tax would also have considerable appeal but (a) hasn’t been tried anywhere, and (b) a shift to such a system has major distributional implications.
    • eliminate R&D grants and/or tax credits.
  3. Legislate to allow two-storey houses to be built, at the owner’s discretion, on any land (subject only to narrow exclusions around, say, flood plains or serious land instability).
  4. (To the extent not inconsistent with 3 above) legislate to entrench existing planning restrictions at a neighbourhood level, while allowing neighbourhoods to vary such restrictions on a 75 per cent favourable vote of affected land owners.  (As a reminder, such provisions would parallel to a considerable extent the covenants that are voluntarily established on-market for many private residential developments.)
  5. Because I would expect 1 and 3 above together to result in a sharp sustained reduction in house and urban land prices, establish a compensation scheme under which, say, owner-occupiers selling within 10 years of purchase at less than, say, 75 per cent of what they paid for a house, could claim half of any additional losses back from the government (up to a maximum of say $100000).  It would be expensive but (a) the costs would spread over multiple years, and (b) who wants to pretend that the current disastrous housing market isn’t costly in all sorts of fiscal (accommodation supplements) and non-fiscal ways.
  6. Establish a Commerce Commission inquiry (or a Royal Commission if necessary) to get to the bottom of why building product prices appear so high in New Zealand, not ruling out direct government intervention in the market if the issue is found to be primarily one of lack of sufficient competition.
  7. Lift the age of eligibility for NZS to 68 (increasing by, say, four months a year, so that it would take nine years to get to that age) and beyond that index the age to future improvements in life expectancy.
    • tighten the residency requirements, so that receipt of full NZS would require 30 years of residence in New Zealand itself (and not treating, as at present, residence in Australia as counting as residence in New Zealand for these purposes).
  8. Institute a congestion-pricing regime for Auckland and Wellington.
  9. Reinstitute interest on student loans, perhaps at a government bond rate (still in effect concessional), while lifting amounts that can be borrowed
    • replace fee-free policy, with a somewhat more generous robustly means-tested student allowance for high-achieving students.
  10. Consider instituting a universal child allowance (radical as this may sound, it was an option covered in the 2025 Taskforce report)
  11. Replace the Secretary to the Treasury, appointing someone with a mandate to build an excellent institution, providing robust advice on lifting economic performance.  The Prime Minister or Minister of Finance can’t do it alone, and the current Treasury doesn’t appear to be up to, or that interested in, the job.
  12. Wind-up the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, using the proceeds to repay public debt
    • consider shifting ACC to a pay-as-you-go basis (public money-pots are corrosive of good government and a wise allocation of resources)
  13. End industry assistance (such as film subsidies), except when the government is purely a vehicle for collecting and enforcing industry levies to fund themselves).
  14. Since this package would be likely to be net fiscal negative (at least in the short-term), adopt as a medium-term target an operating deficit of 1 per cent of GDP, and be willing to allow net debt (currently around 7 per cent of GDP) to rise to 25 per cent of GDP.  (A modest deficit of that size will be consistent with stable debt to GDP ratios over time.)
  15. Prioritise a substantial improvement in water quality in streams and rivers.
  16. Require postal ballots of residents for all major new items of local authority spending (some size threshold to be determined, perhaps relative to annual rates revenue), and establish provision for recall petitions for members of local authorities.
    • prohibit local councils from undertaking investments in individual commercial operations.
  17. Overhaul the Official Information Act, to provide for pro-active release of major documents (notably Cabinet papers) as the default standard, and to amend existing provisions frequently used to delay or prevent release of official information (with parallel changes to the LGOIMA for local government).
  18. Mandate the (all but real-time) disclosure of all political donations in excess of $200, and ensure that the political donations law is written in such a way that it encompasses (for example) donations through charity auctions.
  19. Prohibit former politicians and senior government officials taking paid roles in organisations controlled, directly or indirectly, by foreign governments, and impose a three-year stand-down period on any former minister taking a position in an enterprise s/he was involved in regulating (directly or indirectly) as a minister.

There are all sorts of other policy changes I’d no doubt be happy with, and whole areas I haven’t even touched on.  One is infrastructure finance. I have no particular problem with the interesting ideas that are around on innovative vehicles (used in the United States) allowing infrastructure debt to be tied to the specific landowners where the development is occurring, rather than as a general charge on local councils).  But on my set of policies, expected population growth for the country as a whole would drop to something less than half a per cent a year, reaching zero before too long (as the total fertility rate is now well below replacement) so that action on that issue is much less pressing than if we continue with the deeply flawed “big New Zealand” policy of successive governments.

I haven’t mentioned emissions targets either, but such targets would be hugely easier, and less costly and disruptive, to meet under this set of policies, than under the set we are actually operating.  I haven’t mentioned capital gains taxes: I don’t really believe the case for them has been made, but equally a well-designed CGT probably won’t do much harm.  But with the land market fixed, there wouldn’t be much revenue, at least from the housing side (which attracts so much attention).  Having fixed the land market, one could even follow the US example and include owner-occupied houses in a CGT net (with rollover relief): again it would raise very little revenue, but it might better meet some people’s sense of fairness.

The macroeconomic bottom line of this set of policies I would expect would include:

  • affordable houses,
  • materially lower real interest rates (relative to the rest of the world),
  • a substantially lower real exchange rate,
  • materially more business investment (including foreign investment), especially in the tradables sector, and in time
  • higher exports and imports as a share of GDP,
  • higher productivity, and
  • higher wages.

And a New Zealand that was really working for New Zealanders.

Thoughts/comments/reactions welcome.


Amy Adams and the National economic model

National Party finance spokesperson Amy Adams was interviewed on TVNZ’s Q&A programme on Sunday.   Amid the to-ing and fro-ing on aspects of the government’s Budget, there was an odd exchange about the underpinnings of economic growth in New Zealand.

AMY Can I just finish, though? Can I just finish? Even Treasury is saying that the GDP growth that they’re forecasting is only held up because of strong and, in fact, growing immigration numbers — something that Grant Robertson went on about for nine years in opposition. So it’s been driven by immigration, industrial law changes, foreign direct investment, new taxes. Those things will slow the economy.

CORIN Are you seriously criticising this government for relying on immigration to grow its economy when your government relied on immigration and housing?

AMY Am I going to get a chance to answer? Okay, so what I’m going to say, Corin, is that for nine years in opposition, Grant Robertson made a big deal about the fact that immigration and the net flow of migrants into New Zealand was what was holding up the economy. What I’m pointing out is that Treasury, in its own estimates in the Budget, has said it is continuing strong immigration that is going to continue to see GDP held up. We’ve always argued that you need a good inflow of skilled workers. We’ve never made any bones about that, but this is a government, again, that talked one game in opposition and is entirely going the other way in government.

CORIN Fair enough — that’s a fair point, but it’s a bit rich to criticise them for relying on immigration.

AMY I’m not criticising them for doing it; I’m saying I’m criticising them for breaking their promises about what they said. They said in the campaign they would slash immigration, and now it’s strong immigration numbers that they’re looking at, or at least, Treasury are looking at to support those figures.

If I’m reading Adams correctly she appears to be

  • criticising the government for not carrying through on what she describes as their promises to “slash migration”,
  • arguing that, on Treasury’s account, continued migration-led population growth is a key element in the GDP growth forecast over the next few years (Treasury having revised up its medium-term immigration assumptions), and
  • acknowledging that in National’s term in government, the numbers relied very heavily on large immigration inflows.

I’m mostly interested in that final point.  On my analysis of Labour’s manifesto, there was never a promise to “slash” migration, or even to take steps that would cut the net inflow for more than a year.  And those were policies put in place when Andrew Little was still leader; from her silence on the issue once she became leader it was pretty clear Jacinda Ardern didn’t really believe in those policies.  There was no change promised in the centrepiece of our immigration policy: the residence approvals target number of 45000 non-citizens per annum.    (There hasn’t yet been any sign of the modest changes Labour did promise –  some sensible, some not – although we are told they are coming.)

But what of National’s approach to economic policy.   A couple of weeks ago, the National Party leader was touting his party’s economic credentials

When I was Economic Development Minister, our plan for the economy was set out in the Business Growth Agenda.

The BGA comprised over 500 different initiatives all designed to make it easier to do business by investing in infrastructure, removing red tape, and helping Kiwis develop the skills needed in a modern economy.

Some of those were big, some were small. I’ll admit some weren’t as exciting spending a billion dollars every year.

But together they were effective.

New Zealand has one of the best performing economies in the developed world.

But, in fact, what it came down to mostly was a lot more people, and the activity that a lot more people generate.  At least Amy Adams seems to recognise that.

In the five years to the end of 2012, New Zealand’s population is estimated to have increased by 4.3 per cent, and in the five years to the end of 2017 the increase is estimated to have been 9.3 per cent.    More than all that increase resulted from changes in net migration (the natural increase was smaller in the second period than in the first).  Coping with a lot more people – especially when the increase is unexpected – generates a lot of economic activity (people need houses, schools, shops, offices etc), but not necessarily a lot more long-term economic opportunities to support the increased number of people.

Note that I deliberately used the words “not necessarily”.  At some times, and in some circumstances, migrants can help create or tap whole new opportunities, helping to lift economywide productivity, increase the outward-orientation of the economy (and the associated investment), and so on.  But it is an empirical question, that has to be reviewed in the light of experience.  Sadly, there is little or no sign that we’ve seen those sorts of gains here.

I’ve pointed out previously (perhaps ad nauseum) that total labour productivity growth in New Zealand in the last five years was only about 1.5 per cent.  Over that period, too, trade with the rest of the world (exports and imports) have been shrinking.

trade shares may 18

When National first came to office 10 years ago they recognised that sustainably successful economies tend to be ones that find more and better products and firms that successfully take on the world (in turn, enabling us to import and consume more from the rest of the world).  Perhaps unsurprisingly, foreign trade rated no mention from Amy Adams.

So we’ve had

  • little or no productivity growth in the wake of the population surge,
  • a shrinkage in the proportion of our economy traded with the rest of the world, and
  • increasingly ruinous house prices in much of the country.

Twenty years ago when people first started to worry a bit that there wasn’t much sign of New Zealand catching up again with the rest of the advanced world, one hypothesis that did the rounds for a while was that of ‘the cheque is in the mail” –  just be patient, and the gains would materialise soon.   They didn’t then, but perhaps this time is different?

One place we might look for signs of that is business investment.  But, as even the Reserve Bank Governor has been pointing out, that has been pretty muted.   Here is business investment (total gross fixed capital formation less government and residential investment spending) as a share of GDP.

bus investment may 18

That mightn’t look too bad to you –  after all, the line has been edging up over the last few years.  But even now the share of the economy devoted to business investment is lower than in every quarter from 1993 to 2008, and we’ve had much larger and more sustained total population increases this time round than in the previous couple of cycles.  More people need more capital.  It doesn’t look as if business has been planning for even better times ahead, more or less just meeting the domestic demands of the rising population itself.  (And as I illustrated on Friday, Treasury doesn’t expect any recovery in the export/import shares of GDP in the next few years.)

Consistent with that, here is a chart I’ve shown previously, using SNZ’s annual capital stock data.

cap stock growth may 18Growth in the per capita “productive” capital stock –  public and private, but excluding houses –  has been low and has been trending downwards.  I’ve also shown (orange line) a proxy for natural resources per capita: since natural resources themselves are fixed, this is just the inverse of the rate of population growth.  Per capita natural resources are falling.  That mightn’t be a problem –  it is, after all, true of every country with a growing population – if other resources were taking the place of the natural ones.  But there has been no sign –  in business investment, productivity, or the foreign trade data –  of that here.

Productivity growth here (real GDP per hour worked) in the last five years was 1.5 per cent in total.  The best-performing eight OECD economies averaged 11.3 per cent over the most recent five years (some to 2016, some to 2017).  Most of those countries are still a bit poorer and/or less productive than New Zealand –  but not all (the list includes Turkey, Slovakia, and Korea). And those gaps are now a greater deal smaller than they were even five years ago.  New Zealand GDP per capita is currently around $60000.  If we’d managed 10 per cent productivity growth over the last five years –  instead of 1.5 per cent – the economy would be around $5000 bigger per man, woman, and child.  Just think of the possibilities that would have opened up, individually and collectively.

Instead, pretty much all we had was the activity generated by a lot more people, and more working hours for those already here.  Probably inadvertently, the National Party finance spokesperson has finally acknowledged it.

Of course, the outlook under the current government is more of the same, or even worse.  The immigration policies of the two main parties are all but identical in substance (although the cyclical dimension does appear to be turning), but the new government throws into the mix the ban on oil and gas exploration, a determination to do more on water standards, and to do much more around emissions.  Perhaps each of those policies is individually worthy, but they are all likely to come at an economic cost, a cost exacerbated if policy keeps on trying to drive up the population –  in a location that hasn’t shown the (beneficial) economic fruits of such a policy for a long time now.  And should the government somehow manage an acceleration of the rate of housebuilding, that too will only squeeze out –  through higher interest and real exchange rates – more of the business opportunities that might otherwise have supported a growth in material living standards.

More people, at least in New Zealand, isn’t a path to higher productivity, and higher productivity is what aspirations for higher material living standards rely on.  More people is just a path to more activity to accommodate more people –  skewing the economy inwards again, and undermining our prospects of ever getting back towards that upper tier of advanced economies.  On this score, Amy Adams (and her leader) appear quite as blind as Grant Robertson (and his). It is only two years until the next election campaign will be getting underway: the Adams interview doesn’t suggest any sign of a rethink of policy, or even a recognition that activity is no substitute for productivity.  And the latter is sorely lacking in New Zealand.