Taxes, housing, and economic underperformance

Two local articles on possible tax system/housing connections caught my eye this morning.  One I had quite a lot of sympathy with (and I’ll come back to it), but the other not so much.

On Newsroom, Bernard Hickey has a piece lamenting what he describes in his headline as “Our economically cancerous addiction”.    The phrase isn’t used in the body of the article, but there is this reference: “our national obsession with property investment”.   Bernard argues that the tax treatment of housing “explains much of our [economic]underperformance as a country over the past quarter century”, linking the tax treatment of housing to such indicators (favourites of mine) as low rates of business investment and lagging productivity growth.

Centrepiece of his argument is this chart from the Tax Working Group’s (TWG) discussion document released last week.

TWG chart

Note that, although the label does not say so, this is an attempt to represent the tax rate on real (inflation-adjusted) returns.

It is a variant of one of Treasury’s favourite charts, that they’ve been reproducing in various places for at least a decade.   The TWG themselves don’t seem to make a great deal of it –  partly because, as they note, their terms of reference preclude them from looking at the tax-treatment of owner-occupied housing.  They correctly note –  although don’t use the words –  the gross injustice of taxing the full value of interest income when a large chunk of interest earnings these days is just compensation for inflation, not a gain in purchasing power at all.   And, importantly, the owner-occupied numbers relate only to the equity in houses, but most people get into the housing market by taking on a very large amount of debt.  Since interest on debt to purchase an owner-occupied house isn’t tax-deductible –  matching the fact that the implicit rental income from living in the house isn’t taxed –  any ‘distortion’ at point of entering the market is much less than implied here.

Bear in mind too that very few countries tax owner-occupied housing as many economists would prefer. In some (notably the US) there is even provision to deduct interest on the mortgage for your owner-occupied house.   You –  or Bernard, or the TOP Party –  might dislike that treatment, but it is pretty widespread (and thus likely to reflect some embedded wisdom).  And, as a reminder, owner-occupation rates have been dropping quite substantially over the last few decades –  quite likely a bit further when the latest census results come out.  Perhaps a different tax system would lead more old people –  with lots of equity in a larger house – to downsize and relocate, but it isn’t really clear why that would be a socially desirable outcome, when maintaining ties to, and involvement in, a local community is often something people value,  and which is good for their physical and mental health.

So, let’s set the owner-occupied bit of the chart aside.  It is simply implausible that the tax treatment of owner-occupied houses –  being broadly similar to that elsewhere –  explains anything much about our economic underperformance.  And, as Bernard notes, it isn’t even as if, in any identifiable sense, we’ve devoted too many real resources to housebuilding (given the population growth).

So what about the tax treatment of rental properties?   Across the whole country, and across time, any distortion arises largely from the failure to inflation-index the tax system.  Even in a well-functioning land market, the median property is likely to maintain its real value over time (ie rising at around CPI inflation).  In principle, that gain shouldn’t be taxed –  but it is certainly unjust, and inefficient, to tax the equivalent component of the interest return on a term deposit.     Interest is deductible on rental property mortgages, but (because of inflation) too much is deductible –  ideally only the real interest rate component should be.  On the other hand, in one of the previous government’s ad hoc policy changes, depreciation is not deductible any longer, even though buildings (though not the land) do depreciate.

But, here’s the thing.  In a tolerably well-functioning market, tax changes that benefit one sort of asset over others get capitalised into the price of assets pretty quickly.  We saw that last year, for example, in the US stock market as corporate tax cuts loomed.

And the broad outline of the current tax treatment of rental properties isn’t exactly new.  We’ve never had a full capital gains tax.  We’ve never inflation-adjusted the amount of interest expense that can be deducted.  And if anything the policy changes in the last couple of decades have probaby reduced the extent to which rental properties might have been tax-favoured:

  • we’ve markedly reduced New Zealand’s average inflation rate,
  • we tightened depreciation rules and then eliminated depreciation deductions altogether,
  • the PIE regime – introduced a decade or so ago –  had the effect of favouring institutional investments over individual investor held assets (as many rental properties are),
  • the two year “brightline test” was introduced, a version of a capital gains tax (with no ability to offset losses),
  • and that test is now being extend to five years.

If anything, tax policy changes have reduced the relative attractiveness of investment properties (and one could add the new discriminatory LVR controls as well, for debt-financed holders).  All else equal, the price potential investors will have been willing to pay will have been reduced, relative to other bidders.

And yet, according to Bernard Hickey

It largely explains why we are such poor savers and have run current account deficits that built up our net foreign debt to over 55 percent of GDP. That constant drive to suck in funds from overseas to pump them into property values has helped make our currency structurally higher than it needed to be.

I don’t buy it (even if there are bits of the argument that might sound a bit similar to reasoning I use).

A capital gains tax is the thing aspired to in many circles, including the Labour Party.   Bernard appears to support that push, noting in his article that we have (economically) fallen behind

other countries such as Australia, Britain and the United States (which all have capital gains taxes).

There might be a “fairness” argument for a capital gains tax, but there isn’t much of an efficiency one (changes in real asset prices will mostly reflect “news” –  stuff that isn’t readily (if at all) forecastable).   And there isn’t any obvious sign that the housing markets of Australia and Britain –  or the coasts of the US –  are working any better than New Zealand’s, despite the presence of a capital gains tax in each of those countries.   If the housing market outcomes are very similar, despite differences in tax policies, and yet the housing channel is how this huge adverse effect on productivity etc is supposed to have arisen, it is almost logically impossible for our tax treatment of houses to explain to any material extent the differences in longer-term economic performance.

And, as a reminder, borrowing to buy a house –  even at ridiculous levels of prices –  does not add to the net indebtedness of the country (the NIIP figures).  Each buyer (and borrower) is matched by a seller.  The buyer might take on a new large mortgage, but the seller has to do something with the proceeds.  They might pay down a mortgage, or they might have the proceeds put in a term deposit.    House price inflation –  and the things that give rise to it –  only result in a larger negative NIIP position if there is an associated increase in domestic spending.  The classic argument –  which the Reserve Bank used to make much of –  was about “wealth effects”: people feel wealthier as a result of higher house prices and spend more.

But here is a chart I’ve shown previously

net savings to nni jan 18

National savings rates have been flat (and quite low by international standards) for decades.  They’ve shown no consistent sign of decreasing as house/land prices rose and –  for what its worth –  have been a bit higher in the last few years, as house prices were moving towards record levels.

What I found really surprising about the Hickey article was the absence of any mention of land use regulation.  If policymakers didn’t make land artificially scarce, it would be considerably cheaper (even if there are still some tax effects at the margin).   And while there was a great deal of focus on tax policy, there was also nothing about immigration policy, which collides directly with the artificially scarce supply of land.

I’ve also shown this chart before

res I % of GDP

These are averages for each OECD country (one country per dot).  New Zealand is the red-dot –  very close to the line.  In other words, over that 20 year period we built (or renovated/extended) about as much housing as a typical OECD country given our population growth.    But, as I noted in the earlier post on this chart

The slope has the direction you’d expect – faster population growth has meant a larger share of current GDP devoted to housebuilding – and New Zealand’s experience, given our population growth, is about average. But note how relatively flat the slope is. On average, a country with zero population growth devoted about 4.2 per cent of GDP to housebuilding over this period, and one averaging 1.5 per cent population growth per annum would have devoted about 6 per cent GDP to housebuilding. But building a typical house costs a lot more than a year’s average GDP (for the 2.7 people in an average dwelling). In well-functioning house and urban land markets you’d expect a more steeply upward-sloping line – and less upward pressure on house/land prices.

And, since Hickey is –  rightly – focused on weak average rates of business investment here is another chart from the same earlier post.

Bus I % of GDP

Again, New Zealand is the red dot, close to the line.   Over the last 20 years, rapid population growth –  such as New Zealand has had –  has been associated with lower business investment as a share of GDP.  You’d hope, at bare minimum, for the opposite relationship, just to keep business capital per worker up with the increase in the number of workers.

This issue, on my telling, isn’t the price of houses –  dreadful as that is –  but the pressure the rapid policy-fuelled growth of the population has put on available real resources (not including bank credit).  Resources used building or renovating houses can’t be used for other stuff.

And one last chart on this theme.

productive cap stock

The blue line shows the annual per capita growth rate in the real capital stock, excluding residential dwellings (it is annual data, so the last observation is for the year to March 2017), but as my post the other day illustrated even in the most recent national accounts data, business investment has been quite weak.   I’ve added the orange line to account for land and other natural resources that aren’t included in the official SNZ capital stock numbers.  We aren’t getting any more natural resources –  land, sea, oil and gas or whatever –  (although of course sometimes things are discovered that we didn’t know had been there).  The orange line is just a proxy for real natural resources per capita –  as the population grows there is less per capita every year, even if everything is renewable, as many of New Zealand’s natural resources are (and thus the line is simply the inverted population growth rate).

In New Zealand’s case at least, rapid population growth (largely policy driven over time) seems to have been –  and still to be – undermining business investment and growth in (per capita) productive capacity.   Land use regulation largely explains house and urban land price trends.  And it seems unlikely that any differential features of New Zealand’s tax system explain much about either outcome.

The other new article that caught my eye this morning was one by Otago University (and Productivity Commission) economist, Andrew Coleman.    He highlights, as he has in previous working papers, how unusual New Zealand’s tax treatment of retirement savings is, by OECD country standards.  Contributions to pension funds are paid from after-tax income, earnings of the funds are taxed, and then withdrawals are tax-free.   In many other countries, such assets are more often accumulated from pre-tax income, fund earnings are largely exempt from tax, and tax is levied at the point of withdrawal.   The difference is huge, and bears very heavily on holding savings in a pension fund.

As Coleman notes, our system was once much more mainstream, until the reforms in the late 80s (the change at the time was motivated partly by a flawed broad-base low rate argument, and partly –  as some involved will now acknowledge –  by the attractions of an upfront revenue grab.

The case for our current practice is weak.  There is a good economics argument for taxing primarily at the point of spending, and not for –  in effect –  double-taxing saved income (at point of earning, and again the interest earned by deferring spending).  And I would favour a change to our tax treatment of savings (I’m less convinced of the case for singling out pension fund vehicles). I hope the TWG will pick up the issue.

That said, I’m not really persuaded that the change in the tax treatment of savings 30 years ago is a significant part of the overall house price story.  The effect works in the right direction –  and thus sensible first-best tax policy changes might have not-undesirable effects on house prices.  But the bulk of the growth in real house (and land) prices –  here and in other similar countries –  still looks to be due to increasingly binding land use restrictions (exacerbated in many places by rapid population growth) rather than by the idiosyncracies of the tax system.

Our rather moribund economy

The quarterly national accounts data were out yesterday.  They made pretty underwhelming reading.

There was the (rather modest) growth in per capita GDP

pc GDP mar 18

This expansion –  dating from around 2010 –  has been quite a lot weaker than the previous two growth phases.  In the chart you can see that almost every peak for the last 25 years has been lower than the one before.   And for the last year – full year 2017 over full year 2016 – we managed only 0.8 per cent growth in real GDP per capita.   Growth has been slower than that only in the midst of the last two recessions.

At least real per capita GDP grew, you might say.  But hours worked per capita (whether measured by the HLFS or the QES) grew by a touch over 0.8 per cent over that same period.  In fact, there was no growth in labour productivity at all.

Here is my standard labour productivity chart, averaging the different possible combinations of QES and HLFS hours data and production and expenditure GDP data.

productivity mar 18

There has been no productivity growth at all in the last year, and in the last five years ( the grey line relative to the orange line) average annual labour productivity growth has been only around 0.3 per cent per annum.   And this in an economy that the previous government liked to boast –  and the new government seemed happy to concede –  was doing pretty well.  Productivity growth is the only sustained basis for long-term improvement in material living standards.   We have very little of it –  even as we start so far behind most other advanced countries.

Perhaps our firms have been managing more success in taking in world markets?

There was bounce in the terms of trade –  dairy prices were improving –  so nominal exports as a share of nominal GDP did improve.

x share of gdp

Unfortunately, it looks like another of those series in which each peak is a bit lower than the one before it.    And services exports –  the wave that was much talked of a year or two back –  look to be dropping away again.  Exports of services –  often talked of as the way of the future –  first got to the current level (share of GDP) in 1998.

I don’t often show charts of export volumes.  As a share of GDP such charts aren’t very meaningful.  But one can compare growth rates, in this case for the last decade, since just prior to the 2008/09 recession.

x and gdp real

Over the decade as a whole, export volume growth has barely kept pace with the unimpressive growth in real GDP, and even the services surge in 2014/15 only ‘made up’ for the severe underperformance of that sector in the previous few years.   Recall that, for a country with a small population, New Zealand’s export share of GDP is very low to start with, and over this decade there has been no progress in closing that gap (something probably an integral mark of any sucessful policy programme to close the overall productivity gaps).  The result isn’t very surprising given how out of line with relative productivity our real exchange rate has become, but it can be (soberingly) useful to see the hypothesis confirmed in the data.

And one last chart.  Here is the proxy for business investment spending as a share of GDP (total investment less government and residential investment).

business investment to dec 17

Yet another chart in which each peak seems lower than the one before it –  and this in a country where, with very rapid population growth at present, one might have hoped to see a temporarily larger than usual share of current GDP going to business investment, to maintain the capital stock per worker.   But no.    If anything –  and there is noise in the series so I wouldn’t make anything much of it – things may have been falling off again in the last few quarters.

These weren’t outcomes the previous government showed any sign of caring about.   In Opposition, Grant Robertson would regularly release statements when the national accounts came out lamenting the relatively poor performance.  In office, there was no statement yesterday.  And despite the occasional ritual obeisance to the idea of lifting productivity performance, there is no sign that government –  or their Treasury advisers –  has any serious idea how such outcomes might be brought about, or any very serious commitment to trying.


“Productivity” missing in action

There was going to be a post yesterday, on the Reserve Bank’s newly-published estimates of the natural rate of unemployment, the NAIRU etc.   But then, walking down the stairs at home, I went over on my right foot and, so it turns out, broke a bone.   And so now I sit encased in plaster for a couple of weeks, not able to do much of what stay-at-home parents do.  But I can still type and the NAIRU post might appear later in the day.

In the meantime, this morning the Tax Working Group released its Submissions Background Paper.  I’m sure there is plenty of interesting material in it, and in due course I’ll read it, and probably write about it (especially the capital gains tax sections).  But, out of curiousity, I electronically searched the document.   First, I searched for “productivity”    There were two footnotes referring to Productivity Commission documents, and one quote from the terms of reference for the Tax Working Group; one of the government’s objectives for the tax system is

·             A system that promotes the long-term sustainability and productivity of the economy

And that was it.

So I tried “productive”.  That produced four results, but

  • one was in the appendix reproducing the Terms of Reference,
  • one was in an appendix of questions for submittters”,
  • one was a question posed at the start of a chapter, and
  • the final one simply described the question the government had asked them to think about.

In other words, no analysis, no description at all.   The (short) Terms of Reference were weak on this score –  the clear focus was “fairness” –  but the TWG’s own much-longer document was even worse.    And just in case some serious analysis or discussion was lurking under terms like “the tradables sector” or a concern about growing “exports” I searched under various forms of those words, and there were no references at all.  Not one.

The yawning productivity gap isn’t the only problem or issue New Zealand faces, and it shouldn’t be the only consideration in the design of the tax system.   But when it is totally absent from the discussion document framing the Tax Working Group’s work, it simply further reinforces that perception (which I’ve writtten about here and here) that there is little reason to think the government is serious about grappling with the decades of relative decline.  I doubt that anything in the tax system is overly important in explaining that relative decline –  although a heavy tax burden on returns to business investment (especially FDI) won’t be helping –  but it seems extraordinary that the issue isn’t even touched on in the working group’s background document.


From the weekend current affairs shows

Two of the government’s top four ministers appeared on the weekend TV current affairs shows. It wasn’t encouraging.

The Minister of Finance appeared on TVNZ’s Q&A.   There was a great deal of talk about boosting wages –  after several years in which real wage growth has outstripped (almost non-existent) productivity growth.  But nothing about credible steps that might lift productivity growth itself.  It is easy to spend money, but much harder to generate the foundations for higher incomes in the first place.   And there seemed to be no recognition whatever that the real exchange rate has been increasingly out of line with the dismal productivity performance

rer and rel GDP phw

or, not unrelatedly, that the export share of New Zealand GDP has been shrinking, not rising.  And, of course, no plans, no suggestions even, as to what might be done to reverse this decline.

There was talk of the tax system having, it was claimed, underpinned a “speculative economy”, but no sense of how the Minister of Finance saw possible tax system changes producing materially different outcomes –  notably around house prices –  than they have in Australia, the UK, Canada, or much of the coastal US.    Nothing, of course, about fixing the fundamental problem: land-use restrictions, the effects of which appear to have become increasingly binding (some nice new evidence on just that point from Australia was published last week).

There was blather about the forthcoming ‘wellbeing budgets”, built on The Treasury’s living standards framework, but no sense of how decisionmaking was going to be improved or economic (or other) outcomes improved.

There was a lot of talk about the “future of work” –  one of the Minister’s favourite themes –  and the potential to support workers facing displacement by the advance of technology etc, at a time when the employment rate and the participation rate are both higher than they’ve been at any time in the 30+ years history of the HLFS data.

There was enthusiastic talk about the economic benefits of immigration, but no evidence or argumentation.  And for all the talk about “skills gaps” no recognition of the OECD data suggesting New Zealand workers are among the most skilled of any in the advanced world.  And for all the allusions to the role of immigrants in building houses, no apparent recognition of just how few construction workers are among the immigrants, or of the new research published by the Reserve Bank of which the authors note (and which in many ways just repeats what New Zealand economists knew decades ago)

The estimates further suggest population change may be ‘hyperexpansionary’ as the residential construction demand associated with an additional person is higher than the output they produce. In these circumstances, population increases raise the demand for labour and create pressure for additional inward migration, potentially explaining why migration-fueled boom-bust cycles may occur.

And that was just the Minister of Finance.

On Saturday, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs had been interviewed on The Nation.   When I read the news story about the interview I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading, and went back to watch the interview to see if Winston Peters was being fairly reported. He was.

It was bad enough to find New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs appearing to defend Donald Trump’s tariff policy.   I can understand that it might not have been diplomatic to have openly attacked them as rushed, ill-considered, dangerous and not grounded in any decent economic analysis.   In other words, stepping around the issue delicately would have been one thing.  But the defence of Trump was pretty shameful –  the more so in a week when the government of which he is Deputy Prime Minister was signing up to what it would have us believe was a new “free trade agreement”.

But rather than oppose the move as detrimental to free trade, Mr Peters said Mr Trump was reacting to unfair deals.

“What’s Donald Trump’s biggest complaint? It’s that countries shouting out ‘free trade for America’ don’t practise free trade themselves. In fact it’s New Zealand First’s and my complaint that the countries we deal with apply tariffs against us whilst we’re giving them total and unfettered access to our country. It’s simply not fair.”

He said Mr Trump’s move was “not Luddite, it’s not old-fashioned”.

“It happens to be an economic fact which some propagandists of the free market tenet should face up to, and describe why it’s not fair for Donald Trump to do what he’s doing.

Do the Minister of Finance, the Minister for Trade and Export Growth, and the Prime Minister agree with this sort of “trade as zero-sum” analysis and approach, that threatens to further undermine the WTO arrangements governing world trade, which have been of considerable value to New Zealand?

But our Minister of Foreign Affairs hadn’t finished.    He also went on record as one of the few people left, outside the Russian government, asserting that Russia had not been attempting to meddle in the US 2016 election.    Reasonable people might differ on whether there is any real evidence that such meddling made any material difference –  as staunch an anti-Putin anti-Trump observer as Masha Gessen remains very sceptical.  One might even take the view that it is not really any of New Zealand’s business.  But for our Foreign Minister to actually be weighing in in defence of Putin should be inconceivable, inexplicable, and indefensible.  Sadly, it is now only the latter two.

But even that was just the entree.  The crowning outrage was the attempt by our Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs to suggest that the Russian authorities had no part in any responsibility for the downing of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine and the deaths of 298 people.  Sure, Vladimir Putin himself didn’t the fire the missile (leaders rarely do) but as David Farrar summarises it

the Dutch investigation found the Buk missile system was transported from Russia on the day of the crash, fired from a rebel controlled area and returned to Russia after it was used to shoot down MH17.

If the Minister just wanted to mount an argument that our firms can still trade with evil regimes –  a point he went on to make – that would be one thing.  After all, our governments have been pursuing deals with Saudi Arabia, even as it is primarily responsible for the ongoing disaster in Yemen.  If he wanted to make an argument that there are bigger threats to the world than Russia –  China say? –  reasonable people could also debate that proposition.

But to minimise the Russian regime’s responsibility for what was an act of mass murder of innocent, otherwise uninvolved, civilians is just shameful, indeed disgraceful.  It shouldn’t be allowed to pass quietly by by the Prime Minister, the rest of her Cabinet, or (say) the leaders of the Green Party on whom the government also depends.   What sort of country would we be becoming if a senior minister can get away with lines like this?

It seemed to be a weekend for trivialising the really dangerous stuff by use of spurious –  and insulting –  comparisons.   In the same interview, Peters seemed to compare Russsa’s actions in Ukraine (or the US) with Australia’s in legally deporting from Australia non-citizens convicted of committing crimes in Australia.  And in another interview a few days ago Peters seemed to be attempting to draw parallels between the activities of the government of the People’s Republic of China in the Pacific (and presumably New Zealand) and those of private citizens among the Samoan and Tongan diaspora in New Zealand.

Amidst fears about outside influence from the Chinese in the Pacific, Peters is quick to note that New Zealand possesses some influencers of its own.

“One of great forces in Tongan society is the Tongan society in New Zealand, that’s where an enormous amount of remittance money is coming from, and that’s the same for Samoa.

“So when you talk about outside influences, bear in mind that we have massive outside influences on Samoa.”

If you refuse to actually confront real threats, that is one thing, but don’t insult us – or our friends, allies, and even our citizens –  with such efforts at trivialising those threats, those behaviours.





The Treasury reminds us that GDP – and productivity – really is almost everything

In recent times, we’ve heard endlessly from The Treasury and the government about the emphasis they want to place on the “living standards framework” Treasury has been cooking up for some years for a left-wing government (the previous government had little interest).  We are constantly told that there should be less emphasis on GDP-based measures.

This was a news report just a few week ago

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was enthusiastic about the new approach in her speech in a church on Wednesday about the Government’s plans beyond the first 100 days. From 2019, Budgets would be delivered using new metrics designed to paint a more accurate picture of New Zealanders’ lives and encourage government to tailor spending to lift the country’s performance across those metrics, she announced.

Budgets would go beyond GDP per capita and debt to GDP ratios to analyse the wider effects on people’s wellbeing and the state of the environment in an inter-generational way, she said.

“By Budget 2019 Grant and I want New Zealand to be the first country to assess bids for budget spending against new measures that determine, not just how our spending will impact on GDP, but also on our natural, social, human, and possibly cultural capital too,” she told the crowd.

I’m among those who’ve long been sceptical of the Living Standards Framework, and the “four capitals” approach that is now its shop window.   It has always seemed content-light, and more about product differentiation (on the one hand), and a way of avoiding focusing on the decades-long record of productivity growth underperformance (on the other).   Treasury has had no compelling answers to the productivity failure, and so it must have been tempting to shift the focus. Since the new government evidently has no plan, and they have “feel-good” constituencies to please, it must have seem doubly appealing.

I’ve been meaning to write some more about some of the papers and speeches The Treasury has released recently, expecting to cast further doubt on whether the new framework is likely to add any analytic value, or improve the quality of policymaking.

But yesterday I noticed that The Treasury had saved me the effort.  On their Twitter feed was this retweet

vs. : What makes countries better off? IMF economists crunch the numbers. Read

It was drawn from this IMF piece. In it, the IMF reports

For years, economists have worked to develop a way of measuring general well-being and comparing it across countries. The main metric has been differences in income or gross domestic product per person. But economists have long known that GDP is an imperfect measure of well-being, counting just the value of goods and services bought and sold in markets.

The challenge is to account for non-market factors such as the value of leisure, health, and home production, such as cleaning, cooking and childcare, as well as the negative byproducts of economic activity, such as pollution and inequality.

Charles Jones and Peter Klenow proposed a new index two years ago (American Economic Review, 2016) that combines data on consumption with three non-market factors—leisure, excessive inequality, and mortality—in an economically consistent way to calculate expected lifetime economic benefits across countries. In our recent working paper, Welfare vs. Income Convergence and Environmental Externalities, we updated and extended this work, attempting to include measures of environmental effects and sustainability. In this blog we look at our results from updating the new index.

Our findings clearly suggest that per capita income or GDP does capture the main component of well-being. And health—a key component of well being—is critical to raising welfare and income.

The well-being index

What emerges from Jones and Klenow’s work is a consumption-equivalent index that measures welfare derived from consumption, then adds the value of leisure (or home production) and subtracts costs related to inequality. This calculation is made for each country over one year and then multiplied by the life expectancy in each country. This gives us a measure of average expected lifetime welfare based on consumption, leisure, inequality, and life expectancy. (Click here for a further discussion of the well-being index.)

There is a close relationship between our calculation of per capita welfare for 151 countries in 2014 and per capita income or GDP. The chart above [reproduced in the tweet] shows that most countries line up fairly well along the 45-degree line (where relative welfare and income per capita are the same) indicating correlation, but there are significant differences, too. Poorer countries on the left are largely below the line, showing that welfare is lower than income. Richer countries at the top right are above the line, reflecting welfare that is higher than income.

Enough said really.  There is little sign of any obvious gain from shifting the focus of the Budget, or The Treasury’s advice from GDP per capita, and the productivity measures –  GDP per hour worked, and MFP –  which are associated with them –  to amorphous living standards/ “four capitals” measures.

Of course GDP isn’t perfect.  And of course governments can boost GDP is welfare-detracting ways (eg conscription and forced labour), and yet The Treasury ends up promoting new research from the IMF suggesting that in fact countries don’t do so to any material extent (if it were otherwise more countries would be much further from the 45 degree line).  It suggests what everyone has always known –  that in setting policy governments do think about other stuff, not just GDP (check out all those Cabinet papers with “Treaty implications” section, as just one example).  And that measures that free people and economies to lift productivity, and with it potential GDP, remain the most salient and reliable way to lift key elements of living standards (not just material consumption).  Fix productivity and many other possibilities comes with it.   It still won’t capture everything, but beyond that a great deal involves explicit value judgements, in which area Treasury has no superior expertise or insight.

Perhaps instead of diverting so much of their analytical resource into the new-fangled, not particularly robust, tools and frameworks, The Treasury could return to getting the basics right: robust advice on expenditure, calling out bad or rushed policy when it is proposed/promised, and focusing in –  with a genuinely open mind – on the specifics of why New Zealand’s long-term productivity performance has been so poor.


Not much encouragement in the productivity data

New Zealand’s weak productivity performance has been an on-and-off theme of discussion for decades.   We’ve been falling behind for 70 years now, something that was recognised by expert observers almost 60 years ago. In all that time, there has never been any sustained period when we’ve made any progress in closing the gap.   A typical cycle seems to involve Opposition politicians –  of whichever party –  suggesting that they will do better, and that under their stewardship we’ll catch Australia, get back into the upper half of the OECD, or whatever.   Once in office, the rhetorical concern often lasts for a year or two, and then typically nothing much else is heard or –  worse –  there are attempts to twist the data to try to render our underperformance less stark.

There was a bit of focus last year on New Zealand’s latest run of poor productivity outcomes.  I and others had noted that we seemed to have had no productivity growth for almost five years.  And, sure enough, Opposition parties picked up the issue to some extent, and the then-government attempted to play distraction and pretend everything was fine.

And then there was a change of government, and a couple of months later a new annual update on the GDP numbers.  The new numbers saw estimates of GDP for the last few years revised up a bit and –  since estimates of hours worked didn’t change – that translated through into a lift in estimates of real GDP per hour worked.  In some quarters, a sigh of relief was breathed.  And, to be sure, in this context more was undoubtedly better than less.

But when I dug into the numbers it still resulted in this chart

GDP phw worked NZ Jan18

We’d gone from having no labour productivity growth at all (actually marginally negative) over the last five years to total productivity growth over that period of 1 per cent (ie about 0.2 per cent per annum).   It is a little better than the previous iteration of data has suggested, but……it wasn’t anything to boast about.  It shouldn’t have made anyone much less uncomfortable.  And on the updated data this was the New Zealand vs Australia comparison.

AUs and NZ reaL gdp PHW

Once a year, Statistics New Zealand release official estimates of annual labour productivity growth for what they label the “measured sector” of the economy, which covers around 80 per cent of the economy (total GDP).  The latest release, including data for the year to March 2017, was out last week.  The “measured sector” includes about 80 per cent of the economy, where Statistics New Zealand is reasonably comfortable about its real output measures (the main exclusions are education and health).

Unsurprisingly, there were some upward revisions in these numbers as well.   The numbers don’t get a great deal of commentary, but the reaction seemed encapsulated in this chart from one of the banks.


Not only were the numbers for the last couple of years revised up, but if you eyeball the chart productivity growth in the last decade doesn’t look much different than that for the previous decade.

That certainly looks more encouraging.

This is how productivity growth in (a) the measured sector and (b) the whole economy compare, based on the latest SNZ releases.   Here I’ve used just production GDP –  since it is production sectors SNZ uses to do the measured sector numbers –  and have shown the data in log form, in which a constant slope of the line means a constant growth rate.

measured sector and real GDP phw

Recall that the measured sector is about 80 per cent of the economy.  And for a gap of that size –  the measured sector productivity growth was 17 percentage points faster than that for the whole economy over the 21 years – to have opened up it suggests that productivity in the non-measured sector (the rest of GDP) must have done very badly indeed.

This little exercise is purely illustrative.  I’ve deducted measured sector productivity from the total, assuming the measured sector is indeed 80 per cent of the economy, and then multiplied what was left by 5 [(100/(100-80)] to produce a proxy residual index of implied labour productivity in the non-measured sector.  This is the result.

nonmeasured sector

It is only a proxy, calculated residually, and the precise numbers are sensitive to the (changing) exact share of the non-measured sector industries.  But the proxy suggests a pretty calamitous picture for productivity (especially, if summary numbers SNZ includes are to be taken seriously, in education) in the non-measured sector.  Disgruntled parental consumer of the education system that I am, something doesn’t seem to entirely ring true –  these aren’t, after all, quality-adjusted numbers.   When, as a matter of policy, money is being thrown at education and (eg) teacher/pupil ratios are being raised, one might expect crude measure of education sector productivity to fall.  But that doesn’t seem to have been the story of the last nine years –  whether the educational lobbies, or the former government, are to be believed.

One problem with the measured sector data is that there is no ready way to compare New Zealand productivity growth numbers with those for most other countries.    There are no standard compilations of such data and it would take a huge amount of painstaking effort for an individual to attempt to replicate the numbers for a reasonable range of other advanced countries.  Given the importance of common global (or at least advanced country) trends in productivity, that severely undermines how much use can be made of the aggregate data.

However, the Australian Bureau of Statistics publishes some very similar data, for what it calls the “market sector”, also around 80 per cent of the economy.  And SNZ themselves highlight the comparisons between the New Zealand and Australian productivity growth numbers in each of their annual releases.  As they note in the latest release, over the period since 1996 (the period for which the two countries have comparable data), labour productivity in the measured/market sector averaged 1.5 per cent per annum in New Zealand and 2.2 per cent in Australia (Australian data is for June years).   Over 21 years, those differences multiply up to big numbers –  and, in levels terms, we had already fallen well behind Australia by the mid 1990s.

You might have hoped that all those differences were early in the period. Unfortunately, the SNZ/ABS data suggest not.

measured sector nz vs aus

Starting from just prior to the 2008/09 recession (downturn in Australia) the relative performances of the two measuered sectors look depressingly similar to the pattern in the aggregate (real GDP per hour worked) chart I showed earlier.  Over nine years, Australia’s market sector managed total productivity growth a full eight percentage points fast than New Zealand’s measured sector managed.

All these charts just use hours worked as the relevant input measure.  Usually SNZ also publish (as do the ABS) the data using composition-adjusted labour input measures (eg if the amount of human capital per worker is increasing, as people get more skilled, that represents more inputs not higher productivity).   I’ve become a bit more sceptical of such measures in recent years, since proxies for human capital are often educational achievement numbers, and much of what Bryan Caplan writes about –  that much of formal education is about signalling rather than skill acquisition –  I find increasingly persuasive.  But this year I can’t even show you the numbers as SNZ ends their release noting plaintively

The composition-adjusted productivity in the measured sector data did not meet our quality standards for publication..The absence of this data does not affect any other data published in this release. We don’t have an expected release date for this data

Oh dear.

In sum, there isn’t much in the recent waves of productivity data/estimates that should give anyone serious about economic performance much comfort at all.   There are, no doubt, countries that have done worse than us on this score in the last decade, but  –  starting well behind –  we’ve made no overall progress in closing the gaps to other more advanced countries, and have continued to slip (quite materially) further behind our closest comparator, Australia.


Robertson on productivity: not much basis for confidence

I’m not going to write much about the Productivity Hub (Productivity Commission, MBIE, Treasury, and Statistics New Zealand) conference yesterday on “Technological Change and Productivity”.   Not all of it was even about productivity, not all of it was even relevant to New Zealand (there was a genuinely fascinating presentation from a US academic on the economics of wind and solar power, which must matter a lot if half your power is generated from fossil fuels, but rather less so in a country where 90 per cent of power is hydro-generated).   And there was lots of focus on micro data on firm (or agency) level productivity, even though no work in that area has yet been shown to shed much light on the large gap between economywide average productivity in New Zealand and that in most other advanced OECD countries.   But the “Reddell hypothesis” did get a (positive) mention from the platform, when the Productivity Commission’s Director of Economics and Research, Paul Conway, reprised some of the thoughts from his 2016 “narrative”, highlighting the likely importance of the macroeconomic symptoms: persistently high real interest rates (relative to other countries) and a high real exchange rate.   Conway suggested that we should focus much more on bringing in highly-skilled migrants, and that if that led to a reduction in total numbers that might well be a good thing.     With 47 MBIE people among the 200 or so (mostly public service) registrations, I don’t suppose that proposition commanded universal assent, but there wasn’t any further open discussion.

I couldn’t stay for the final session, but fortunately that speech has been made widely available.  The Minister of Finance gave an address on “The Future of Work: Adaptability, Resilience, and Inclusion”.   At one level, I was pleasantly surprised: there was more about the productivity challenges New Zealand faces (our overall underperformance) than I’d expected.  And if I’m sceptical about the Treasury Living Standards Framework, and attempts to build policy around “well-being”, I couldn’t really disagree with the thrust of this line from early in the speech

Improving productivity is key to improving wellbeing. By producing more from every hour worked, businesses become more profitable, incomes rise, and workers’ wellbeing rises as time is freed up and purchasing power rises.

And it was good to have the new Minister of Finance remind us that productivity growth (lack of it) has been a longstanding problem in New Zealand.  Although even then he seemed inclined to underplay the problem: for example, basically no productivity growth at all for the last five years.   And he noted that GDP per hour worked is now around “20 per cent below the OECD average”.   But since the average includes places like Turkey and Mexico, and a group of countries (ex eastern bloc) which weren’t market economies at all 30 years ago, it might be better to highlight the point I made in yesterday’s post:   for New Zealand to catch up with the G7 economies as a whole, we’d require a 50 per cent lift from current levels (assuming those countries had no growth at all), and to match that group of highly productive northern European economies (France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark), we’d need more like a two-thirds increase.   Even to catch Australia –   which lags some way behind the OECD leaders –  would take a 40 per cent increase in economywide productivity.   That lost quarter-century won’t be regained easily.

But it is one thing to recite these numbers (early in one’s term as Minister of Finance).  As even Robertson put it

I am most certainly not the first New Zealand politician to both highlight the challenge of low productivity, nor to say that we will address it.  So the proof will be in what we actually do. 

And what is on that “to do” list?   And that is where it gets a bit disconcerting.

There are a couple of the reviews underway

Our Tax Working Group and the reforms we are making to the Reserve Bank Act are an important part of setting the path to a more productive economy.  That focus on improving productivity is at the heart of the terms of reference for both these reviews.

No serious observer believes that the sorts of changes foreshadowed for the Reserve Bank Act –  desirable as the general thrust might be –  will make any difference whatever to the trend level of productivity in New Zealand.  Monetary policy just isn’t that potent.  As for the Tax Working Group, a (limited) capital gains tax might, or might not, be a good idea but I’d be surprised if anyone believed it would make a very material difference to overall economic performance (and, after all, much of the TWG documentation has a prime focus on fairness).    For all the talk about “too much investment in housing” recall –  as the Minister doesn’t in his speech –  that a key element of government policy is building lots more houses.  Resources used for one thing can’t be used for other things.

What else is the government planning?

The government has committed itself to the goal of a net zero carbon economy by 2050.  This is an essential shift for New Zealand away from an economy that hastens climate change to one that is more sustainable and develops New Zealand’s strategic advantages.

We will need to ensure this is a just transition where affected industries and communities are given the support to find new sustainable growth opportunities.

Again, you might or might not think this is a worthwhile goal, but it isn’t going to lift economywide productivity relative to what would have happened without the net zero goal.   Even the Minister is here focused on smoothing transitions, minimising disruption.

Then there is skills.

The Future of Work was the catalyst for our three years’ free training and education policy. One of this Government’s key policies is to provide one year of free post-secondary education or training, gradually progressing to 3 years by 2025.

So in a country where the OECD data suggest that the skill levels of New Zealand workers are already among the very highest in the OECD, the government is going to spend rather a lot of money (all funded by taxes, with their deadweight costs), in the expectation that a marginal cohort of people who would not otherwise have invested in formal training/education will now do so.  Most of the immediate gains will go to people who would in any case have gone to university (or done other comparable training)  –  I’m expecting my kids to be in that category –  and most of the people who take up formal training who otherwise would not have done so, are likely to well below the leading edge in terms of productivity potential.    If there are gains at all economywide –  which seems unlikely, but I’m open to persausion –  they will almost certainly be pretty small.  It is mostly a middle class welfare policy, not a productivity policy.

Then there is regional development policy

A major example of this is the Provincial Growth Fund developed as part of our coalition agreement with New Zealand First.  This will see significant investments in the regions of New Zealand to grow sustainable and productive job opportunities.

The details of the Fund are to be released shortly and will provide some of the most significant development of our regions in decades.  These will be driven from the ground up, with the Government as an active partner.

If it ends up less bad than a boondoggle we should probably be grateful.  It isn’t the sort of policy that has a great track record, and it is hard to be optimistic that one new minister –  with a vote base to maintain –  is going to transform the sort of flabby thinking around regional development presented at Treasury late last year.   At very very best, it is all rather small beer.  Recall that we need a two-thirds lift in economywide average productivity to catch those northern Europeans.

It goes on

It is my strong belief that the most critical element to New Zealand succeeding in the Future of Work is a renewed social partnership between businesses, workers and the government. 

If we look at Germany as an example, union members often sit on company boards as part of the decision-making process, ensuring that employee wellbeing is considered alongside high-level corporate profit and financial targets.

One of my goals as Minister of Finance is to develop this new partnership at a system-wide level to promote a combined work stream on how we can apply these lessons to other industries and sectors. 

Maybe the Minister doesn’t see this sort of stuff mostly affecting productivity performance.  But if not, what will?

Perhaps R&D.

In the Coalition Agreement with New Zealand First we have set a target of hitting an R&D spend of 2% of GDP in ten years. That’s more than a 50% increase in R&D investment relative to GDP over that time and will make a significant contribution to improving our productivity.

Officials say that this is an ambitious goal. We believe this can be done, with the Government incentivising such vital work by the private sector.

Minister for Research, Science and Innovation, Megan Woods, has already begun work on overhauling New Zealand’s R&D regime, with Ministers set to discuss officials’ initial findings later this month. We are committed in the first instance to restoring R&D tax credits to give firms some certainty about their investments.

But, as with earlier comments the Minister made in his speech about relatively low rates of business investment, there is no suggestion that the government has thought about what it is in the economic environment that leaves private businesses –  pursuing profit opportunities where they find them –  unwilling to spend more, whether on R&D or investment.

It was interesting that the Minister of Finance chose to highlight comparisons with Germany in his speech.  As I’ve pointed out in an earlier post,  Germany doesn’t have an R&D tax credit (actually of those successful northern European countries I highlighted earlier, neither does Switzerland) –  although the senior OECD official whose seminar I attended the other day, who didn’t seem wildly enthused about the merits of such tax credits, did note that the German government is under business pressure to introduce such a scheme because, eg, France and the Netherlands have them.

There are stories galore about what gets claimed for under R&D tax credits, and one person at the seminar the other day indicated that the Australian government is currently looking to wind back its R&D tax credit, having realised that a significant amount of money is being rorted.  If free tertiary education is (largely) welfare for middle class parents and their children, R&D tax credits look like welfare for the owners (often foreign) of businesses.    The R&D spending already happening would, presumably, have taken place anyway, so if there is to be a tax credit in respect of that spending it is pure gift (on top of the advantage of being able to immediately expense anyway).   There will be significant incentives to reclassify some activities as R&D that weren’t previously (because there was no advantage to doing so).  Some of that will bring to light genuine R&D spending that wasn’t previously visible – slightly tongue in cheek, the OECD official noted this was one advantage of R&D credits.   Other spending won’t really be R&D at all, and IRD will be engaged in a constant battle to hold the line.  And perhaps there will be some additional R&D work undertaken that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred.  But surely –  a bit like the increased teritary participation that will flow from fee-free study –  most of that will be, almost by definition, the least valuable, most marginal, activities; the stuff not worth doing without a subsidy?

It is, frankly, a bit hard to believe that even the best R&D tax credit –  and I gather MBIE officials are working hard to limit any abuses and wasteful transfers in the forthcoming tax credit –  will be a transformative part of the story.

Let’s go back to those northern European countries, with a slide from the OECD official’s presentation:


France –  third bar from the left –  has some of most generous government support for business R&D of any country in the OECD database, including a generous tax credit.   That support has materially increased in the last decade, but it was still fourth highest in 2006 (the white diamond).   Germany (DEU) has low overall government support, and no R&D tax credit at all.     These are both advanced industrial economies, situated right next to each other, with lots of trade between them.   And here is OECD data on the respective levels of real GDP per hour worked.

fr and ger

Identical at the start, identical at the end, and never –  through the whole period (Mitterrand, absorbing East Germany or whatever) – any very material deviation between the two lines.  It is the sort of relationship –  univariate and all –  that makes it more than a little hard to take seriously suggestions that introducing an R&D tax credit here will make any material difference to our relative productivity performance.

And here is the OECD data (for 2015) on R&D spending in each of those six highly productive northern European countries, and New Zealand.  “BERD” is business expenditure on research and development.

R&D spend n europe.png

Remember that Germany and Switzerland are the two of the northern European group that don’t have R&D tax credits, and provide little direct government support to business R&D.   I’m not suggesting any sort of perverse relationship  –  a lot probably depends on the specific sectors businesses in particular countries concentrate on – but it should at least be a little sobering to reflect that the two countries in that grouping with no R&D tax credits have higher rates of business spending on R&D than any of the other countries in the group (even with all the incentives that such credits create to classify spending as “R&D”).  One might wonder if the big French incentives –  increased in the last decade –  might not have been sold on the basis on “we are lagging behind Germany in R&D spend” and need to “do something” to catch up.

Mostly, a reasonable hypothesis still looks to be that firms will invest (including spending on R&D) when it appears to be profitable for them to do so.  If so, it might be better to spend some more time understanding what holds firms back –  addressing issues at source if possible –  rather than just throwing more government money at a symptom.  There isn’t much sign the government has done anything more than highlight a few trendy symptoms, rather than really engaging in an integrated narrative of New Zealand’s economic performance.  The Minister of Finance concluded his speech yesterday

I want us to re-write our productivity story, so that New Zealand becomes a leading example of a sustainable and productive economy in which everyone gets a share of economic success.

It is a worthy aspiration –  shared, no doubt, by a long line of predecessors stretching back decades –  but there is little sign of the sort of serious thinking –  or even engagement with the full range of symptoms (eg weak export share, high real interest rates, high real exchange rate, physical remoteness and yet rapid population growth) – that would provide much reason for confidence that they might yet devise an effective strategy to respond to the specifics of New Zealand’s situation.

And since a common response whenever I write along these lines is “but what would you do differently?” here are links to a version of my story given to a business audience , a version given to the Fabian Society, a more recent version to a general audience.   In the margins of the conference yesterday, one person commented that he thought one problem was that few officials had read my original paper, prepared a few years ago for a Reserve Bank/Treasury-hosted conference, which puts the basics of the argument in a standard two-sector (tradables and non-tradables) analytical framework, here is the link to that paper too.