The Government’s Industry Strategy

When I heard yesterday that the now-former Economic Development minister David Parker had made an encore appearance to launch something called “From the Knowledge Wave to the Digital Age”, I wondered why he would want to remind anyone of the Knowledge Wave, a conference held under the previous Labour government in late 2001. Of course, my impression of that event was somewhat jaundiced by the fact that my boss, then-Governor of the Reserve Bank Don Brash, had made a “courageous” and somewhat ill-judged speech at the conference –  against the advice of many of his senior staff, at least as to content – that with hindsight could have been read as an audition for his post-Bank forays with the ACT and National parties (although I’m 100 per cent sure it wasn’t intended that way).

But the bigger problem is that, for all the talk, all the ink spilled, at that conference and through the subsequent Growth and Innovation Framework nothing much changed for the better.  The productivity gaps (New Zealand vs other advanced countries) didn’t start to close, the economy didn’t become more foreign trade (outwards and inwards) oriented, there were no fresh waves of greenfields FDI.   Instead, we had a reasonably strong cyclical upswing (rapid house price inflation, general inflation showing signs of getting away)…..followed by a nasty recession and a sluggish subsequent decade.

David Parker gave a speech at the launch of what is supposed to be “the Government’s Industry Strategy”, and that is going to be my focus here.  I haven’t read the full 50 page document, but I’ve skimmed through it and will include a few observations drawn from that.

Perhaps how people react to “Industry Strategy”  is one of the ways one tells them apart.  I was a bureaucrat for a long time  (but in the era in which the Reserve Bank believed in letting markets work and eschewed direct government interventions as much as possible), but when I hear the words “Industry Strategy” my heart does not leap with excitement, rather I think of the Soviet Union, the eastern-bloc, the People’s Republic of China (that not-overly-productive middle income country), or even –  more mundanely –  New Zealand’s own past failures in this regard: plans and conferences and strategies, often with little to show for it (when we are fortunate) but often enough with white elephants to mark the landscape, or memories of money just poured down the drain.  But I guess it is different in today’s Labour Party, or in today’s MBIE –  the modern version of the Department of Industries and Commerce (too many in the National Party seem to have had the same inclinations).   The government has a plan, a strategy –  or a whole series of them –  not for the economy as a whole (getting the basic structures right etc) but for individual industries.  And, with little accountability and no market discipline at all, they are keen to use your money and mine to back those strategies, boldly going where private investors have, thus far, decided not to.

As often with David Parker, there are sometimes glimpses of recognition of real problems.

I believe there is no doubt we inherited an economy based on excessive property speculation and high rates of immigration driving consumption led growth. The latest OECD report on New Zealand confirms this.

The infrastructure deficit left behind – not just schools, hospital, roads and public transport, but also private and public housing – will take a decade to catch up.

This is serious, but the adverse effect on productive investment was also profound.

Low per capita investment in our productive businesses has inhibited the diffusion of technology, and the development of innovative new products and services.

I wouldn’t frame some of it quite that way (notably that Labour trope about “excessive property speculation”) but, broadly speaking, he isn’t wrong.   Perhaps a shame there is no mention of the real exchange rate, at all, but it isn’t nothing.

The problem is, though, that this is buried deep in a speech which is mostly full of breathless energetic accounts of great things already done and great stuff the government (and industry) are about to do.

The flip side of the enormity of the 4th industrial revolution on the future of work, is the correspondingly huge potential for business.
It is an exciting time.
A myriad of new ways of new products and services are being made possible.
Most improve productivity.
Many are needed to decarbonise the world to avoid catastrophic climate change, or to combat pollution of our rivers and oceans. Others will overcome debilitating disease, improving the lives of millions.
I believe that it is the duty of every government to address both the future of work, and to maximise the up-side by chasing down as many of these commercial opportunities as we can, so as to harness the new jobs and value.

(I’m still old-school enough to think of outrages when I see the word “enormity” but let that pass).

Notice that second to last line, it is the “duty” of governments to “chase down” commercial opportunities.   In part, presumably, because in the Minister’s view it is all some sort of zero-sum game.

It is a race. Others want the prizes that we seek. 

Which isn’t the way most economists think of economic growth and development, perhaps especially not in a country that start so far behind the global productivity frontiers.

And then it just becomes completely delusional

Since the 1970s successive governments have wrestled with our productivity challenges; how we add value, upskill and diversify our economy.

We should acknowledge the important milestones and efforts of yesteryear.

They show that when we together have a plan and chart a direction, our economy strides forward.

To repeat, there is no time in the last 46 years –  say, since the UK entered the EEC (the Minister’s reference point) –  when New Zealand has made any sustained progress in closing the productivity gaps to the other advanced economies.  Instead, as I illustrated in Monday’s post, they’ve kept on widening.  They are widening now, after five years –  both governments –  of no productivity growth.

Of course, the officials themselves know this –  even if they squirm in their chairs  –  and, to his credit, Parker didn’t stop them including this chart in the fuller document.

MFP parker

It isn’t the chart I’d have chosen myself, but it makes the point nonetheless.  And recall that all three of these countries were already materially richer, with higher levels of labour productivity in New Zealand, back in 1990.

In fairness, the Minister does have a place for the private sector

Government can direct investment towards the regions, and champion sectors where we see a comparative advantage, but it is the mobilisation of the private sector which delivers the jobs the big gains.

Better if they just left aside the picking winners –  or even propping up losers –  implicit in the first half of the sentence.

And this is where the Minister praises the Knowledge Wave and the Growth and Innovation Framework, going on to note

Our predecessors identified three priority areas. These were chosen because of their potential for export growth and because of the underlying importance that competence in the sector had to the wider economy. Spillover benefits.

The crucial sectors identified were ICT, biotechnology (with a food and beverage bent) and, thirdly, the creative sector and design.

They got it right and I am pleased to doff my cap to those who called it at the time.

Not that reference to export growth.   We get this guff

Our telco competence is a considerable achievement, and a prerequisite to the development of Xero, Vista, Coretex and a myriad of other companies that sell software as a service, which have flourished.

And the other sectors have boomed too.

Fisher and Paykel Healthcare. A2 Milk and a range of other food and beverage companies. Weta Workshops and its spinoffs. Now household names. Billions of dollars in enterprises that have helped build our country.

The Growth and Innovation framework is the GIF that keeps on giving. Computer gaming, robotics, customer service avatars, nutrient monitoring software.

The race is on.

Our TIN200 companies are growing strongly, with technology exports now our third largest export sector (after tourism and agriculture). New hires abroad as well as export sales growth are described in the TIN200 report on the table.

One can pick all sorts of holes in that  (massive film subsidies for example, or the fact –  as I’ve documented here before –  that on no proper statistical definition of exports are “technology exports” “our third biggest export sector.  But don’t worry about those sort of picky details.   Wouldn’t the Minister’s text lead an uninformed reader to suppose that the outward orientation of New Zealand’s economy had markedly increased since the early 2000s?   Nothing in the speech suggests otherwise, but (again) lurking in the full report was the sort of chart I run here regularly.

exports parker.png

It just hasn’t happened.   There are individual success stories, of course –  as there have been throughout our history –  but it doesn’t add up to much, when productivity growth has lagged further, and our export/import shares have gone sideways or downwards.     That, apparently, was the legacy of those earlier planners (actually I doubt all their words etc added up to much at all).

But the Minister is breathless in his enthusiasm and goes on

Kiwisaver and the Cullen Superannuation Fund have deepened our investment skills and capital markets.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise has been important in helping many exporters sector navigate their risky journey into new markets.

Our seed or angel investment capital market has matured. The innovation ecosystem has strengthened as management capability and globalisation ambitions have both grown.

We still suffer a gap in series A and B capital rounds, which this slide shows – something we have addressed in our latest Budget.

The $300m boost, and lead being shown by our largest NZ investor – the Guardians of the NZ Superfund – will attract private sector investment and help our firms to achieve their potential.

This will help to directly fill the current ‘capital gap’, and draw in other capital from NZ and abroad.

Give me leave to differ.   National savings rates haven’t improved materially, whatever NZTE has done –  let alone all those preferential trade agreements, which Parker is trying to negotiate more of – exports haven’t become a more important part of the economy, more firms aren’t showing they can foot it globally.       And when you are reduced to lauding a government money-pot, with no market disciplines and little accountability, as your catalytic hope, it is all a bit thin, and worrying to boot.      And I have no real idea what that final sentence means –  but if he means low rates of business investment, in reasonably well-run countries, private firms will invest eagerly to take advantage of profitable opportunities, when they exist.

The breathless energy continues

There is no time for delay. The seemingly exponential growth in opportunities will within just a decade or two morph into the law of diminishing returns.

At one level its simple, if we want these innovative parts of the economy to grow faster, we have to apply more of our precious resources to the task.

Don’t ask me what it means, but it would certainly good if there was some serious recognition from the top of government that our economic performance has really been pretty lousy for decades and an evident determination to get to the bottom of why, rather than just trying to pick a few more “winners”.

The gush goes on, sector by sector (you can read it for yourself), but haven’t we heard it all before.  They were probably discussing such things, enthusiastically, at the National Development Conference 50 years ago.

The speech ends with a full page on “Industry Transformation Plans”. I’m guessing they probably won’t come to much, so perhaps little harm done, except that more years pass, and more energy is devoting to avoiding the real issues.  Here is a sample of the Minister’s great enthusiasm for what government can and will do with these plans.

These describe an agreed vision for the future of a sector, and set out actions required to realise this vision.

Industry Transformation Plans are in train across large sectors of our economy – in agriculture with the Primary Sector Council for example.

Our first Industry Transformation Plan was the Construction Sector Accord. It was co-developed by an industry Accord Development Group. Industry leaders working with the Government.

Our next Industry Transformation Plans focus on four other priority sectors: food and beverage, digital technology, forestry and wood processing, and – as I have said – agritech.

The Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council and the Future of Work Tripartite Forum will provide strategic leadership.

Key components of each plan will include assessments of the opportunities and risks from digitalisation, the future of work and skills training.

Risk sharing between government, businesses and labour to enable skills training to upskill existing workforces will be crucial to avoid the rising inequality which will otherwise flow from the future of work.

Each plan will also set out decarbonisation pathways, ways to increase exports, as well as an assessment of capital constraints. Partnerships are needed.

Business, workers and government all have a stake in every industry and we need to partner to make a real difference for New Zealand.

It is almost literally incredible.  The hubris, the lack of any apparent recognition of the limits of government knowledge, the complete absence of any sense of the benefits of vigorous competition, of creative destruction even, or market disciplines and so on.  Bill Sutch might have been proud.

It is sad in a way.  I suspect David Parker is better than this, and knows that this sort of stuff just isn’t likely to be any more transformative than the last (or first) wave of goverment talkfests.  But when you aren’t willing to even think about tackling the real issues  – the real exchange rate doesn’t appear in the 50 page document either –  I guess you need a lot of sound and fury, lest –  just a year out from an election –  it look as if the government is doing nothing, has no ideas, or doesn’t really care.  Sadly, all the talk is likely to signify almost nothing, in making a real difference, reversing the economic underperformance, and even building (in the government’s own words) “an economy that is more productive, sustainable, and inclusive for all New Zealanders”.

 

Productivity by the numbers

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

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

NZPC prod

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

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

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

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

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

Tsy productivity GDP phw

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

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

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

NZPC prod 2

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

The report goes on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nzpc prod 3

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Perhaps the politicians are content with this record

I’m on deadline trying to finish a chapter for a forthcoming book, but was checking some numbers and noticed that the OECD now has 2018 labour productivity estimates for most countries.

This is the company we keep these days (comparable levels of real GDP per capita, in PPP terms).

e europe.png

(For the two countries with asterisks the numbers are for 2017).

And here is total growth in labour productivity over the period 2012 to 2018 for each of those countries.

e europe 2

(On my reading of SNZ data, the OECD’s New Zealand numbers looks a little low: probably something between 0 and 1 per cent looks to be a better estimate).

It wasn’t that 2012 was particularly exceptional in New Zealand –  so that we were coming off an artificially high base –  just that since then productivity growth has vanished.

GDP phw may 19

I do hope our political leaders –  both main parties –  and their business and media cheerleaders are happy.

Citizens shouldn’t be.

Agricultural sector productivity growth

In the last few weeks, presumably simply by coincidence, I’ve had various comments and emails about productivity growth in the agricultural sector.    The most recent one finally prompted me to dig out the official data and check that my impressions were still supported by the data.  They were.    Agricultural sector productivity growth was very strong, but has been much more subdued for some time now.

There are two main measures of agricultural sector productivity: labour productivity (in effect, output per hour of labour input) and multi-factor productivity (in effect, the residual after what can be attributed to growth in labour and capital inputs has been deducted). In principle, MFP is superior.  In practice, estimates rely more heavily on the assumptions used in the calculation (although –  diverting briefly –  to the various readers who have sent me a recent piece by GMO on TFP/MFP, I reckon there is less to that critique than the authors claim).

Agriculture is one of the sectors for which we have consistent productivity data back to year ending March 1978.  By New Zealand standards, that is a long run of data.  Note that there is quite a bit of natural volatility from year to year because of fluctuations in the climate (droughts and all that).

Here are the charts showing growth in labour productivity and in multi-factor productivity (both expressed in log terms, so that the slope of the line indicates the growth rate).

agric LP

Really rapid growth in the first 20 years or so (up 150 per cent in 20 years), but much slower growth since then.  It isn’t disastrous growth by any means –  averaging just under 1.5 per cent per annum from 2005 to now –  but nothing startling either.

And MFP.

agric MFP

Once again, really strong productivity growth for the first 20 years, and much less since then (none at all in the last decade).  If one had confidence in the data, that might be more concerning.

Perhaps –  and it is an obvious question to ask – you are wondering if the slowdown in agricultural productivity growth is just part of the general slowdown in labour productivity growth in New Zealand (seen mostly starkly in the overall economy figures, where there has been very little growth at all in the last five years or so).

So here are the same two charts –  labour productivity and MFP –  but this time showing agriculture relative to the overall “former measured sector” (the series SNZ publishes that also goes back to 1978, covering the 70 per cent or so of the economy where productivity is relatively less hard to measure).  All series are indexed to a common base in 1978 (so none of this is about productivity levels, it is all about cumulative growth rates).

Labour productivity first.

agric LP and FMS

and MFP

mfp agr

There is clearly something in the story.   Growth in the “former measured sector” productivity itself has slowed –  labour productivity growth averaged 2.4 per cent from 1978 to 1998 and 1.6 per cent for the 20 years since 1998.  But whereas agricultural sector productivity growth was (far) outstripping that in the rest of the “former measured sector” in the earlier years –  the upward-sloping bits of the last two charts –  in the last 20 years (and even more so in the last 10) productivity growth in the agricultural sector has been a little slower than in the rest of the “former measured sector”.

I don’t have a policy point to make here.  Sector-level productivity isn’t my area.  Relative optimists might look at the data and suggest liberalisation played a big part in the earlier productivity surge, and that liberalisation wasn’t ever going to be repeated.  Perhaps, but bear in mind that our agricultural sector was always the part of the economy most heavily exposed to international markets  (by contrast, a sector like “Transport, postal, and warehousing” –  with similar total labour productivity growth over 40 years –  was almost certainly much more sheltered).   Pessimists might focus on the role of unpriced externalities (particularly around water pollution, but also methane emissions) and wonder how agricultural sector productivity might respond as regulation bears more heavily there (although it is possible we could see higher average productivity and lower total output).   Others might reasonably wonder about these productivity measures for agriculture in particular: in most sectors labour and capital are the critical inputs, but land is a huge input in agriculture and it isn’t directly accounted for (something which matters –  much –  more in looking at levels estimates).   [UPDATE: A SNZ person got in touch and pointed out that they do take account of land in their capital services estimates.]

As for me, my only motivation was to update my impressions.  Sadly, the latest data confirmed them.

 

Easy to do business, bad place for business

I noticed the other day a tweet from the chair of the Productivity Commission calling attention to the fact that New Zealand once again tops the World Bank’s ease of doing business index.  The top five this year were New Zealand, Singapore, Denmark, Hong Kong, and South Korea.

New Zealand has ranked at or near the top of this index for some time (in fact, ever since it was created about 15 years ago).  From their country note on New Zealand these charts show New Zealand’s data in more detail (the first showing our rank on individual components, and the second our absolute scores) .

ease of doigng business

No doubt there are people in MBIE who know all about why we score poorly on some of these sub-indices, and what could or should be done to improve (and even perhaps, on occasion, why what the World Bank is measuring isn’t necessarily what they think it is).

But New Zealand has consistently scored well on this measure.   That is noted regularly in analyses of our economic performance.  Generally, we want to have a good regulatory etc environment in which it isn’t difficult for someone with an idea, someone spotting an opportunity, to set up and run a business.   I haven’t dug more deeply into the index to understand why, but I was interested to see our one perfect score was on “getting credit” –  this being about business credit, not housing.

Scoring highly in this index is almost certainly better than scoring poorly.  Contrast the top five with the bottom five countries; Libya, Yemen, Venezuela, Eritrea, and Somalia.   But if there is some causation at work in the implied direction (improve your score on this index and your economy is likely to improve) there is probably also some (weaker) causation in the opposite direction: rich and well-governed countries are likely to score better on an index that often looks at sophisticated features of a regulatory system.

Whatever the aggregate story, there is no simplistic one-to-one mapping from a good score on this World Bank index and better economic performance.  New Zealand is the standout illustration of that point.

In this chart, I’ve shown labour productivity (real GDP per hour worked) levels and growth rates for the top 5 countries for the decade from 2007 to 2017, using the most recent version of the Conference Board’s database.  If the benefits of a high “ease of doing business” score show up anywhere in official data it should be here.

ease of doing bus productivity

South Korea wasn’t in the top five a decade ago (in fact, it was only ranked 21st).  Probably the various reforms they’ve done over the last decade, which have improved their score in the World Bank index, have contributed to productivity growth.  That is part of how they have been catching up and converging.

But what I found interesting about the chart is that –  for this small group of countries/territories – the productivity growth pattern has been about what you would expect.  The countries with the highest initial levels of labour productivity had slower growth rates than those with lower initial levels of productivity.  The exception, of course, is New Zealand.

Take a bigger sample and there will be other exceptions (the UK, for example, ranks number 9 and –  after a good couple of decades, but only middling levels of advanced country productivity –  has had a really poor productivity growth performance in the last decade.    But my focus is New Zealand.

We score quite well on all manner of such international surveys.  Take skills for example.  A year or two back, the OECD adult skills data suggested New Zealand workers  were among the most highly-skilled in the OECD.    And yesterday I noticed a report suggesting that New Zealand was in the top 3 countries in the world, behind Finland and Switzerland.

Again, it is presumably better to be near the top of such a list than at the bottom

The WEFFI report, by the Economist Intelligence Unit, looks at policy initiatives, teaching methodologies and the socio-economic environment of 50 countries. It found the five worst-ranked countries to be Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria, Iran and Pakistan.

But it doesn’t seem to bear any relationship to getting to the bottom of New Zealand’s specific economic underperformance –  not just over the last decade, but over most of the last 70 years.

One of the odder features of New Zealand public service life is the number of top-tier public servants who now seem to run Twitter accounts and disseminate material through those accounts.  I’m old-fashioned enough to think that senior public servants shouldn’t really be seen or heard except by Cabinet ministers (to whom they give their advice, and implement decisions taken by political masters).  More pointedly, public servants’ Twitter accounts are at grave risk of being, in effect, party political broadcasts for their masters since senior public servants can’t really be out openly disagreeing with the Minister so anything that is tweeted is not going to upset the Minister or his/her office, and yet it bears the imprimatur of a supposedly-neutral public servant.

On the other hand, these accounts can shine a little light on what top public servants are up to and what causes they are championing.

One of the tweeters is the (fortunately soon to have departed) Secretary to the Treasury, Gabs Makhlouf, who has spent the last eight years presiding over –  perhaps even inspiring –  the degradation in the capacity of what should be the government’s lead economic advisory agency.  In his most recent tweet a few days ago he linked to a piece by the (often stimulating) academic economist Dani Rodrik.    There is a lot to disagree with in Rodrik’s piece, but I just to quote his conclusion.

…economists are well positioned to develop institutional arrangements that go beyond what already exists, their habit of thinking at the margin and sticking close to the evidence at hand encourages an aversion to radical change. But, when presented with new challenges, economists must envision new solutions. Imagination is crucial. Not everything we try will succeed; but if we do not rediscover the value of FDR’s credo – “bold, persistent experimentation” – we will certainly fail.

One can only assume that Makhouf agrees.   But there is just no sign of The Treasury under his leadership having seriously re-thought the New Zealand productivity failure.   If there is any bold thinking (and here “thinking” would be a polite description) it is around avoiding confronting that failure at all, chasing off after the insubstantial living standards framework and the associated “wellbeing Budget”. Feel better, I suppose, even if we can’t do better.  It is perhaps great as a political distraction  –  politicians do that sort of thing –  but we should expect something much better from a premier economic agency than turning away from the most striking economic failure in our history, and playing distraction in the hope no one will notice.  In principle perhaps the two –  “wellbeing budgets” and some serious fresh thinking on productivity, specific to New Zealand –  could both be done, but (a) resources are limited and (b) nothing in any Makhouf speech has ever really suggested a desire, or an ability, to confront the specific productivity challenges here.   One can only wistfully hope –  with no reason for optimism, given who (SSC and Grant Robertson) does the selection –  that his successor will be different.

As for my own alternative story?  I don’t have any particular problem with the rankings people like the World Bank come up with –  from a regulatory perspective doing business in New Zealand probably is easier than in most places – but those indexes just don’t shed light on the salient issues for New Zealand.  Citing them, as anything more than a stepping off point  – “despite this high ranking…..” – is akin to looking for lost keys under the lamppost because that is where the light is, rather because there is reason to suppose it is where the keys are.   From a regulatory perspective, New Zealand probably isn’t a bad place to do business –  although there always many things that could be improved –  but from a more fundamental perspective New Zealand –  most remote significant inhabited land mass on the planet –  looks like a pretty awful place to do business from, in anything much other than utilising the limited natural resources.    Were it otherwise, we’d have seen more investment, more exports (and imports), more globally-oriented firms basing themselves here.

Against that backdrop, actively pursuing an ever-bigger population through a large-scale immigration policy that is championed across the bureaucracy –  including by Makhlouf’s Treasury –  is fundamentally damaging to the longer-term economic interests of New Zealanders as a whole. (And, as I’ve noted, many times before that is so whether the migrants  –  mostly decent and well-motivated people – come from Brisbane, Bangalore, Brahmanbaria, Buenos Aires or Birmingham.)  Unless and until our political leaders are willing to confront this – and at present all parties in Parliament are signed on to one of the largest (per capita) immigration programmes in the world, there is very little likelihood of those high rankings –  ease of business, teaching skills, or whatever –  translating into material living standards to match those in other countries at or near the top of these indices.

Australia faces many of the same issues New Zealand does in this regard, but the economic constraints are –  at least temporarily –  less binding because of the newly-developed abundant mineral resources they are able to bring to market.  It was interesting to read in The Australian this morning that the government there is planning to cut their permanent migration intake.   The reported number would still be high by international standards, but in per capita terms would be only about three-quarters of the target in place in New Zealand –  and that in a country with more opportunities and more wealth.   Of course, the current government is almost certain to lose this year’s election –  and some other aspects of the reported package are just daft (trying to compel immigrants and even students to the regions – so it may never happen.  But it suggests a more serious willingness to engage than has been evident from either main party in New Zealand.

Continuing to look under the lamp post, rather than look for actual diagnostic answers and policy solutions, is just a recipe for keeping on failing economically.

 

 

Nurses, pay equity, and the real structural problems

I’ve heard or read a couple of strange stories in the last day or so about the nurses’ trade union making the case for a “pay equity” settlement for their members.

Of course, the very notion of “pay equity” settlements is bizarre, fit only for somewhere like the old Soviet Union.  Some government officials decree that job x should be paid the same as job y, as if the price of a banana should be adminstratively and arbitrarily set equal to, say, the price of a kiwifruit because the two might have (say) similar nutritional value.

But what interested me were two lines being used by the nurses in support of the view that they were underpaid (neither line seemed to have much to do with the false equivalency of “pay equity”, but were rather intended to support the claim that nurses were –  absolutely –  underpaid).

The first, reported here, was this

“In Australia, nurses can be paid as much as $90,000 as a base rate with penal and on-call rates as well. The limit in New Zealand sits around $68,000.”

Last I looked, real GDP per hour worked in Australia (in comparable – PPP –  terms) was 41 per cent higher than in New Zealand.  That is the best aggregate measure of labour productivity.  You’d expect wages and salaries for most jobs to be higher in Australia than they are in New Zealand.   That appears to be so for nurses.   A larger share of New Zealand’s population is in paid employment than is the case in Australia, so the difference in per capita income is a bit smaller, but still just over 30 per cent.  In material terms, Australia is now a richer and more successful country than New Zealand is.  Those gaps keep (slowly) getting wider.

Because of the somewhat-common labour market between the two countries that creates some specific problems for New Zealand.  Plenty of people will look across the Tasman, weigh up the pros and cons of the heat, the snakes and spiders, and the challenges and opportunities of big cities, and move.    Since our somewhat-common labour market applies across the board (not just, say, to public sector nurses), it isn’t a problem we can fix by simply agreeing to all pay ourselves more.  Those sorts of outcomes have to be “earned”  –  not about individuals working harder, but about the economy as a whole finding better and remunerative opportunties, lifting earning possibilities for everyone.  Do it enough, and one day that might even be a net flow of New Zealanders coming back from Australia (Ireland managed it, it can be done).

I’m sure the Nurses Organisation is better connected to people at the top of the government than I am, so I can only urge them to suggest to their friends and allies who currently hold office that economywide productivity might be elevated quite a long way up the list of government priorities (in the Labour Party “Our Plan for New Zealand” brochure dropped in my letter box the other day it featured not at all).  Remind them, perhaps, that for decades New Zealand has been failing on this count, reducing successive governments to pretending to a success that just hasn’t been achieved.  In consequence, wages are much lower than they really should be, and we’ve been more limited than anyone would have liked in dealing with all sort of other social problems.

(Of course, from a Nurses Organisation perspective the strategy I’m proposing would fail any sort of cost-benefit assessment: neither National nor Labour show any sign of being seriously interested in doing what it might take to generate much better productivity and incomes, and (by contrast) the nurses seem to have the government wrapped around their little finger on the pay-equity path to improving their own position. But I’m sure nurses are public-spirited people, and they have children too, not all of whom will choose to be nurses.)

The other strand of the nurses’ argument was a bit closer to home. A Wellington hospital nurse was quoted as saying

Only a quarter of the nurses she worked with lived within walking distance of their hospital.  The result was that only a quarter of the nurses Ms Hopkinson worked with lived within walking distance of their hospital.

“We can’t afford to live in the communities we nurse in, we’re priced out of these neighbourhoods.”   12 years ago when she started, nurses lived in the central city, but that was no longer the case.

“They’re commuting from Featherston, from up the Kapiti Coast, Upper Hutt; they’re a long way away and they won’t be able to make it to us after an earthquake.”

Even in Wellington, it did seem a bit of a stretch to argue for a pay rise so that nurses could walk to the hospital when the 1 in 300 year earthquake hits.  The present value of the cost of that possible post-quake complication will be pretty small indeed.

Now, as it happens I do live within walking distance of Wellington hospital. It is a pleasant middling suburb, and when I was younger I knew lots of nurses who lived in the neighbourhood, attended our church etc etc.  It was close to their work and convenient.  As I’ve noted previously, I bought my first (three bedroom, 30 year old) house in this same suburb 30 years ago –  actually bought it from a teacher who was moving to Wanganui where housing was more affordable (it was near the peak of the then-boom).  The Reserve Bank’s inflation calculator tells me I paid about $296000 in today’s money for that house.

Real wages and productivity have increased since then.  Real GDP per hour worked has risen by a third, so roughly speaking spending $400000 on a house today would bear a similar relationship to incomes as $300000 then.

You cannot buy any house in Island Bay –  still less a three bedroom house, 30 year old, decent-sized section, garage etc – for $400000.  As it happens, earlier this week a real estate agent sent me a several page list of sales in the area in the last few months.  The cheapest property sold was a unit with no land at all, and 60 square metres of house: that went for $400000.  The next two cheapest ($507K and $570K) were also units and had 60 and 70 square metres respectively.  The cheapest house that looks roughly comparable (size, age, but much smaller section) to that first house of mine went for $805000.   The median price across those particular 37 properties was $960000.

It is insane.  No wonder nurses can’t afford to buy anything decent reasonably close to Wellington Hospital (there are slightly cheaper suburbs, but they’ll all have had much the same escalation).   It is not that nurses are underpaid.  And it isn’t just the nurses.  Anyone in a moderate-income job –  especially if there is only one income, or one fulltime and one part-time income –  will really struggle.  And, much as I quite like Island Bay, it isn’t Fendalton or Remuera or St Heliers –  yes, we have a beach too, but even with warming sea temperatures the sea is always more ‘refreshing’ than inviting.

It simply isn’t an issue about nurses, or nurses’ pay.  It is a straightforward consequence of vicious choices that a series of central and local governments have made to mess up urban housing markets.  Government has failed, very badly.  And if it perhaps doesn’t impinge too terribly on the children of the wealthy, it greatly restricts the options of most everyone else looking to get into the housing market, nurses included.  They are, to put it, colloquially, stuffed.  And if that isn’t you or your children yet, it will be mine in a decade’s time.  (Rents are not my primary focus, but in an age in which real interest rates are at record low, real rents should also be lower than ever.)

I’m sure the Nurses Organisation is better connected to people at the top of the government than I am, so I can only urge them to suggest to their friends and allies who currently hold office that fixing the urban land market might be elevated quite a long way up the list of government priorities (in the Labour Party “Our Plan for New Zealand” brochure dropped in my letter box the other day it featured not at all).   Nice Mr Twyford appeared to understand the issue when he was in Opposition, but there has been as little action from him in government as there was from the class enemies of the Nurses Organisation, the previous government.   Remind him, perhaps, of those fast-growing cities across swathes of middle America where good houses really are still affordable.  There is no shortage of land in New Zealand, not even in Wellington (except to the extent the Nurses Organisation friends at the Wellington City Council make it artifically so.   Do not just paper over the cracks, but fix the problem at source.

(Of course, from a Nurses Organisation perspective the strategy I’m proposing would fail any sort of cost-benefit assessment: serious land-use reform from either National or Labour still seems like a long shot (by contrast) the nurses seem to have the government wrapped around their little finger on the pay-equity path to improving their own position. But I’m sure nurses are public-spirited people, and they have children too, not all of whom will choose to be nurses. All of whom will eventually want houses.)

From any sensible policy perspective, so-called pay equity is just daft.  From the perspective of any particular group of workers, perhaps it is the fastest path ahead –  zero-sum game (well, worse) across the whole economy, but beneficial for those particular individuals. But, probably without really being aware of it, the Nurses Organisation put their finger on two really big symptoms of policy failure in New Zealand –  productivity/earnings and housing – that affect almost everyone.   While pursuing their own short-term self-interest, I would urge them to add their voice to the call for serious structural reform in these two areas.   They need it.  We all need it.  Political parties, meanwhile, keep on failing to deliver.

Wages and productivity

There has been a longrunning US debate/puzzle around the relationship (or apparent lack of it) between productivity growth and growth in wages/compensation. It was revisited earlier this week in a (very long) post on the excellent Slate Star Codex blog.  The author introduces his post with this chart, pretty familiar to anyone aware of this issue.

wages US

I’ve always found the issue interesting, but been content to do little more than read the occasional summary article.  Arguments often seem to turn on rather arcane measurement issues and I just don’t know the very detailed US data that well.

But as I read through the long post, I noticed something that probably hadn’t struck me previously.  The productivity measures used in this chart (and others like it) are those for the non-farm business sector.   That is the series that gets the most focus in the US, which makes some sense in that it is (a) regularly published by US official agencies, and (b) if you are interested in the performance of the business sector (and not wanting to be thrown around by climatic effects) it is probably natural to focus on.

By contrast, I tend to focus on measures of GDP per hour worked.   That is mostly because (a) it is what is available on a fairly consistent basis for a wide range of countries, and (b) because it is what is readily able to be calculated quarterly for New Zealand, using published data.  And my interests tend to be the economy as a whole.

In the US context it can make quite a lot of difference which series one focuses on.   In this chart, I’ve shown the two series, starting from 1970 (which is when the OECD real GDP per hour worked data starts from).

US productivity.png

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that whole economy productivity growth is slower than that for the non-farm business sector: incentives (lack of them) and opportunities (types of activities governments do) both tend to work that way.

And then, of course, I noticed that charts like the first one tend to use real variables, which opens up all manner of issues about the “correct” deflator, including issues as to whether the CPI was well-measured in years gone by (there were some fairly significant biases).    But quite recently, I’d compared nominal wage growth in New Zealand to growth in nominal GDP per hour worked, which abstracted from deflator issues (even if it might raise other questions), so I thought I’d do the same for the United States.

I took the compensation per hour series for the US non-farm business sector (official US series) and nominal GDP per hour worked (from the OECD), indexed them all to 1970, and divided one series by the other.  This is the the result.

us compensation

On this measure, US wage growth has lagged a bit behind the growth in the overall economy “ability to pay”.  But it is a hugely smaller gap than is suggested by something like the (widely-used) first chart in this post.

Is nominal GDP per hour worked a reasonable benchmark?  I reckon it is.  Growth in nominal GDP per hour worked captures both real productivity effects and changes in the terms of trade (which have been adverse for the US over this fifty year period).    As ever, there isn’t likely to be some mechanical relationship between labour earnings and GDP per hour worked.  Market pressures shift over time, and so does (for example) the relative importance of capital in generating what growth there is.   Labour shares of the total economy’s output always have, and probably always will, fluctuate over time.   But it seems at least as good a benchmark against which to analyse developments as most others on offer.

Since most of my readers are from New Zealand, two final charts as a reminder of how things are here.

First, a chart comparing real GDP per hour worked with the measured sector labour productivity data.   We don’t have such long runs of data, so this is just since 1996.

NZ productivity measured and total

Unsurprisingly, whole economy productivity growth lags that in the measured sector (that excludes much of goverment activity).

And here is a chart I’ve shown previously showing how wages (the analytical unadjusted LCI series) have grown relative to nominal GDP per hour worked.

wages and GDP

Whatever the story in the US, wage rates in New Zealand have been increasing faster than nominal GDP per hour worked (loosely, “the ability of the economy to pay”).

That might seem quite good for New Zealand employees.  But it is worth bearing in mind that since 1995, we’ve had about 28 per cent growth in labour productivity (real GDP per hour worked) and the US has had about 44 per cent growth in economywide labour productivity.  The windfall of a higher terms of trade has helped us, but if your economy isn’t generating much real productivity growth it isn’t a good outlook for anyone much (workers or owners) in the longer term.