Productivity: any hope from Treasury?

In my post yesterday I noted briefly the dismal productivity record in New Zealand in recent years, nicely captured in this chart.

real GDP phw dec 18

That poor record builds on decades or underperformance, dating back to the 1950s.  In all the time since then, there has never more than a year or two at a time when New Zealand has outperformed other advanced countries, and mostly we’ve achieved less productivity growth than they have.  As a result, we’ve moved from being among the very richest and most productive economies in the world to one where the top-tier of OECD countries have rates of labour productivity about two-thirds higher than those in New Zealand (and countries like Turkey and various former eastern-bloc countries –  where market economies were unknown for decades –  are nipping at our heels).  This table is from a chapter on New Zealand economic performance in a forthcoming book (which I foolishly allowed myself to be persuaded to participate in)

GDP per hour worked
USD, constant prices, 2010 PPPs
1970 1990 2017
New Zealand 21.4 28.6 37.2
Netherlands 27.4 47.5 62.3
Belgium 25.0 46.7 64.6
France 21.7 43.3 59.5
Denmark 25.1 44.8 64.1
Germany 22.3 40.7 60.4
United States 31.1 42.1 63.3
Median of six 25.1 44.1 62.8
NZ as per cent of median 85.4 64.9 59.2
Source: OECD

You might have hoped that this shockingly poor performance would worry someone in office –  political or bureaucratic.  But there is no sign it ever does, for long anyway.  It occasionally provides a good line for Opposition parties (of whichever stripe), or even for incoming governments in the heady days when everything is the fault of the previous government and you’ve not yet been expected to produce results yourself.  Our current Prime Minister and Minister of Finance were occasionally heard to refer to the problem in 2017, but hardly at all since then.

Once upon a time it was something one might have expected The Treasury to care about, have views about, and be offering rigorous advice to the government of the day (of whichever party) on.  After all, productivity is the only secure foundation for material prosperity, and material prosperity allows societies to make all sorts of other choices with fewer constraints than otherwise.  But that isn’t today’s Treasury.  If there are people in the organisation who still think about these things, it certainly isn’t an issue that ever seems to trouble the senior management – the more so under the lamentable stewardship of Gabs Makhlouf over the last eight years.  As I noted late last year, when Treasury is forced to write down its view on the productivity outlook, results make it clear they have the wrong model.

After my post yesterday, a commenter observed

The only hope on the horizon is the appointment of a new Secretary to the Treasury who is given or [secretly] works on a single goal of devising policy to genuinely increasing productivity…..

The Treasury has lost its sparkle over the last 30 years and it is time it regained some lustre, it’s ‘reason for being’ and grew some courage.

I couldn’t disagree with the sentiment, even if I wasn’t optimistic that there was any hope at all.  But the comment prompted me to have a look at the documents on the SSC website supporting the current advertisement for a new Secretary to the Treasury.

The procedure for the appointment of public service chief executives is set out in the State Sector Act.  Section 35 provides that when there is a vacancy the State Services Commissioner must

invite the Minister to inform the Commissioner of any matters that the Minister wishes the Commissioner to take into account in making an appointment to the position.

That is the Minister’s opportunity to scope the job, and identify his or her priorities.  And although there is now a perception that appointments are made by the State Services Commissioner, in fact the law is clear that the Cabinet can not only reject a nomination, but can appoint their own preferred nominee.   In other words, while Peter Hughes (the State Services Commissioner) has considerable influence, appointments ultimately reflect to a substantial degree the choices and priorities of ministers.  Thus, under the previous government it was ministers who fast-tracked citizenship for Gabs Makhlouf to allow him to be appointed. (And thus Bill English –  who later acquiesced in the reappointment of Makhlouf –  bears responsibility for the failures of The Treasury this decade –  including the complete absence now of any comprehensive analysis and advice on the productivity failure).

But what of the current search?  The advert and supporting documents will reflect the Minister of Finance’s own priorities and views of what The Treasury should be doing.

Even the short advertisement itself starts in an unpromising way.

The Treasury is the Government’s principal economic and financial advisor. Its work improves the wellbeing and prosperity of all New Zealanders by ensuring the nation’s macroeconomy is stable,

In fact, if anyone does macroeconomic stabilisation at all well it would be the Reserve Bank –  that is a key part of the Bank’s role.   Sure, The Treasury advises the government on policy around the Reserve Bank, but the Bank is both operationally independent and has a direct line to the Minister on the policy issues.  But not a mention of productivity –  lifting the level of economic performance –  or any of its cognates.

Later in the advert, I was briefly encouraged

The Secretary will be both an expert in financial and economic policy leadership and  state sector management and strategy.

Good luck finding a person with both sets of qualities, but I don’t want to cavil just yet –  an “expert in financial and economic policy leadership” would be good.   An expert in financial and economic policy itself might be even better –  someone who would command credibility among staff, ministers, and the wider policy community.

Three other documents accompany the advert.  One is purely process oriented, and I’m not commenting any further on it.

The second is the position description.  In the opening bumpf  about the organisation there is finally some welcome reference to Treasury’s responsibility for things around the level of economic performance (emphasis added)

The three key outcomes the Treasury works towards are improved economic performance and prosperity for all New Zealanders, macroeconomic stability, and a higher performing State sector.

But that’s it.  Once the document gets on to the specific position of Secretary to the Treasury, it is all lost once again.   There are the specific accountabilities for the Secretary, moving beyond the generic statutory responsibilities:

The Secretary of the Treasury is also accountable for:

• Leading and overseeing New Zealand’s public finance system;

• Working collaboratively with the State Services Commissioner and the Chief Executive of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to ensure a consistent and aligned approach to State sector system leadership;

• Advising on, and implementing strategies for, managing the Crown’s balance sheet including debt; risks; contingent liabilities; and the government’s investment in companies and other entities;

• Advising and reporting on fiscal management for the Crown and monitoring departmental operating and capital expenditure; and

• Building succession for the Treasury’s leadership team and working with colleagues to leverage the Treasury’s talent for system benefit while building a diverse and inclusive organisation where staff have career pathways.

Nothing about economic performance (level or variability) –  advice thereon – at all.

And these are policy-related “critical success priorities”

• Leading, organising and managing the Treasury so it delivers on the Government’s goal of a shared prosperity where all New Zealanders benefit from the wealth that growth in the economy provides;

• Refreshing the macroeconomic framework (fiscal, monetary and financial stability) to ensure it is fit for purpose for the next twenty years, including driving the further development of a wellbeing approach;

• Promoting greater transparency and understanding of the Government’s economic goals through supporting the embedding of wellbeing measures in the Public Finance Act and through the Secretary’s and other Treasury communications and engagements;

• Providing advice to assist the Government to meet its policy priorities within its Budget Responsibility Rules;

• Working collaboratively with others, including Māori, to collectively develop and deliver creative solutions to resolve long-term challenges including child poverty, housing, climate change, and freshwater;

The first of those is about distribution (not “growing the pie”), and the second is about some odd mix of stability and the wellbeing approach.  The third is about transparency, the fourth about fiscal policy, and the fifth perhaps illustrates the government’s priorities.  Productivity appears not to be one of them, from the agency styled as the government’s principal economic advisers.    I’m not necesssarily suggesting there is much wrong with what is on the list –  one can debate the vacuity of the wellbeing approach another day –  but what isn’t there is telling.

The third document is the application form, which is useful because it sets out the capabilities SSC (on behalf of the Minister) says it will be assessing applicants on.  These are the capabilities applicants are required to demonstrate (in writing)

Think, plan and act strategically; to engage others in the vision, and position teams, organisations and sectors to meet current and future needs.

Lead and communicate in a clear, persuasive, and impactful way; to convince others to embrace change and take action.

Work collectively across boundaries to deliver sustainable and long-term improvements to system and customer outcomes.

Drive innovation and continuous improvement to sustainably strengthen long-term organisational performance and improve outcomes for customers.

Bridge the interface between Government and the Public Sector to engage political representatives and shape and implement the Government’s policy priorities.

All probably fine and reasonable in their own way –  if what you want is some generic public service manager –  but again what is notable is the absences.   Neither here, nor anywhere in any of the documents, is there any sense of wanting someone who might model excellence as a policy adviser, or lift the performance of the organisation in a way that might deliver credible and compelling answers to the appalling productivity underperformance of the New Zealand economy.

And why not?  Presumably because neither Grant Robertson, nor his boss, nor his party, nor the parties they govern in league with, care.  Nothing –  in these documents, in speeches, interviews or anywhere –  suggests otherwise.

To revert to my commenter’s hope, I guess there is nothing to stop the person who is eventually appointed choosing to make productivity a priority and foster work developing compelling analysis and recommendations.  But it doesn’t seem very likely.  Even if Treasury isn’t as resource-constrained as some government agencies, there won’t be lots of capable staff resources readily able to be diverted to something that just isn’t a government priority.  But more importantly, what sort of person do we suppose is likely to get the job?   And why would such a person, who got through the selection process (acceptable to both SSC and the Minister) be likely to change their spots once in office.  What would be their incentive?  And how likely is it that they’d be the sort of person who would even care much, or understand the issues well enough to know where to start.

As was the situation eight years ago, there are few obvious strong contenders for the role –  at least among people with any serious economic or financial expertise.    Looking through the list of current Treasury senior management, there are some capable people (although part of a leadership team that appears more interested in, say, diversity than in productivity), but really only one of those people could conceivably offer that level of expertise at this stage.   Around the rest of the public sector, I wonder if Geoff Bascand (Deputy Governor at the Reserve Bank, who was open about the fact that he applied to be Governor and missed out) might be interested.  Perhaps there are ambitious people at MBIE – an agency better known for delivering on ministers’ priorities than for serious analysis.   One can’t help thinking that applicants who are female will, all else equal, have something of an edge. But none of the names that spring to mind seem any better than the likely underwhelming field of male applicants.

Then again, Grant Robertson isn’t serious about dealing with the country’s most important economic failing, so perhaps it doesn’t really matter much who oversees the playground where analysts divert themselves thinking about concepts of wellbeing, while New Zealand is likely to keep drifting further behind.

How are wage earners doing?

For the last few years –  probably almost since the economy began emerging from the long recession of 2008 to 2010 –  there has been talk about how low average wage increases have been.   Those lines have sometimes been run in discussions of the general rate of inflation –  all else equal, if inflation had been nearer target, average nominal wage increases probably would have been a bit higher –  but more often it seems to have been a real phenomenon people had in mind; some sense of wage earners being “left behind”.

I’ve been increasingly sceptical of that story, and did a few posts  12-18 months ago to illustrate the point.   Some of the data aren’t updated very often, and there are historical data revisions, so I thought it might be time to take another look.

The first series I’ve been interested in is the labour share of GDP –  as approximated by the share of all the value-added in the economy accruing as compensation of employees. To make this comparison, one needs to adjust out for taxes and subsidies on production (all else equal, a shift from income taxes to a higher GST won’t raise wages –  or leave people worse off on average – but will raise measured GDP).  The data are only available annually, and only up to the March 2018 year, but here is the resulting chart.

labour share 2018

There is a little bit of short-term variability in the series, but if (say) one compares the latest observation (year to March 2018) with the last observation before the recession (year to March 2008), the labour share of GDP is still a touch higher now than it was then.  In both cases, it was higher than it had been at any time in the previous fifteen years or so.   As I’ve noted previously, the trough was in the year to March 2002 (on my telling, this was not unrelated to the fact that the real exchange rate had then been around historic lows).

The other comparison I find interesting is to look at how wage rates have evolved relative to (nominal) GDP per hour worked.   Nominal GDP captures both any productivity gains the economy has managed and any terms of trade gains (as well as general inflation).  Over the longer-term one would expect those variables to be the biggest influence on developments in economywide wages.

In putting together this chart, I’ve used the SNZ analytical unadjusted series of the Labour Cost Index, which purports to be the right measure for these purposes (wage rates, rather than just average wages –  the latter distorted by composition changes, and wages before any adjustments for productivity –  the headline LCI series attempts to adjust for productivity gains).    The series doesn’t get wide coverage but –  absent any serious efforts to suggest the data are of unusually poor quality –  should.

Unfortunately, the analytical unadjusted LCI series is only available back to 1995 (the private sector sub-component only to 1998) but even that is now well over 20 years of data.

In the chart I have:

  • indexed nominal (seasonally adjusted) GDP per hour worked (using the HLFS and QES), and
  • indexed the analytical unadjusted LCI series,

both to 100 in the March quarter of 1995, and then taken the ratio of the wage series to the GDP per hour worked series (so that the resulting series is equal to 1 in the March quarter of 1995).

lci wages vs gdp

There is a fair bit of short-term noise, but the trend is pretty clear.  On this data, wages have been rising faster than the overall earnings capacity of the economy.   That was so in the 00s, and has been so –  albeit to a lesser extent – in recent years too.  For anyone inclined to want to debunk the analytical unadjusted series, note that this chart is not wildly inconsistent with the labour share chart I showed earlier: the labour share of total income has increased since the early 00s, with the biggest change occurring in the pre-recession 00s themselves.

So what is the problem?  There are two.  First, general economywide inflation has been unexpectedly low this decade, and below the target midpoint now for years.   Not surprisingly, against that backdrop nominal wage inflation has been lower than it might otherwise have been.

But the second –  and far bigger –  issue is that lack of productivity growth.   Here is my regular chart, last updated just before Christmas

real GDP phw dec 18

There has been no labour productivity growth for the last four years, and very little this decade.  Sure, the terms of trade have been reasonably good, but you cannot expect strong sustained growth in (real) wages if productivity growth is so moribund.   If anything, real wage growth has been surprisingly – and probably unsustainably –  strong given that feeble growth in the earnings capacity of the economy.    It is all consistent with a story of a high and overvalued real exchange rate  –  domestic demand pressures give rise to wage inflation, but in the process squeeze the outward-facing sectors of our economy.  You’ll recall that exports (and imports) peaked as a share of GDP at about the turn of the century, and are no higher now than they were 40 years ago –  even though successful small economies typically see a growing reliance on two-way international trade.

It would be good if our political “leaders” –  and their advisers in The Treasury –  actually focused on these sorts of imbalances and underperformances.  But nothing serious is heard any longer from the Prime Minister about the productivity underperformance.  Taking it seriously might confront them with hard choices, and I guess vapid rhetoric about “wellbeing Budgets” comes more readily.  New Zealanders –  including New Zealand wage earners –  deserve much better.

 

Material progress: how very recent

There was a news story a few years ago in which some academics were reported as suggesting that pretty much everyone of West European descent alive today was descended from Charlemagne, first Holy Roman Emperor.   That he had 18 children, legitimate and otherwise, only increased those probabilities.  35 generations back we each have about 34 billion notional ancestors and yet the total population of north-western Europe back then was only about 20 million.

I didn’t give the story much thought until last week.  For the last few months my 12 year old daughter has been hard at work tracing family trees, with a bit of help from Dad.   I was mostly interested in the last couple of hundred years, but she has been keen to trace every line possible as far back as we could go.  We’ve put in some intense effort over the holidays and last week she stumbled on the path that took us all the way back to Charlemagne (and a couple of centuries before him).   Just seeing that continuous path –  one of the billions that made her her – on a couple of sheets of A3 gives a fresh vividness to those earlier centuries.

Of course, the other thing that even a little economic and social history does is to serve as a reminder of just how recent our material prosperity is.  I downloaded a copy of the UK 1861 census form for one particular set of ancestors –  just before they got on the (slow) boat for New Zealand.   They were farm labourers in a small town in Yorkshire, living in a street where the other residents were also farm labourers and the like – and one is explicitly described as a pauper.  The UK in 1861 had (on the Maddison database numbers) the best material living standards anywhere, rivalled only by Australia.  But life was tough, hours were long, amenities were few, and (for example) infant mortality rates were shockingly high.   According to a book a distant relative wrote recently, 26 people were to die on their trip to New Zealand –  quite an “investment” in the prospect of better opportunities.

One of the children of that Yorkshire family, then just one year old, made the most of the opportunities 19th century New Zealand offered.  He built businesses and served as mayor of Christchurch from 1912 to 1919 (and later as an MP).  At the time, New Zealand is estimated to have offered among the very highest material standards of living anywhere in the world.  But I wrote last year about what those “best material living standards” amounted to only a hundred years ago.

Imagine a country in which the average age at death was only about 45, 6 per cent of children died before their first birthday, and another 1.5 per cent before they turned five.  Not many children are vaccinated.

Most kids get to primary school –  in fact it is compulsory –  but only a minority attend secondary school.  By age 15 not much more than 15 per cent of young people are still at school.   Only a handful do any post-secondary education (total university numbers are about 1 per cent of those in primary school).   Houses are typically small –  not much dedicated space for doing homework – even though families are bigger than we are used to.   Perhaps one in ten households has a telephone and despite the street lights in the central cities most people don’t have electricity at home.

Tuberculosis is a significant risk (accounting for seven per cent of all deaths).  Coal fires – the main means of heating and of fuel for cooking – mean that air quality in the cities is pretty dreadful, perhaps especially on still winter days.  Deaths from bronchitis far exceed what we now see in advanced countries. There isn’t much traffic-related pollution though – few cars, so people mostly walk or take the tram.  The biggest city is finally about to get a proper sewerage system, but most people outside the cities have nothing of the sort.      And washing clothes is done largely by hand – imagine coping with those larger families.

Maternal mortality rates have fallen a lot but are still ten times those in 2018 in advanced countries.  One in every 50 female deaths is from childbirth-related conditions –  which leaves some kids without mothers almost from the start.

Welfare assistance against the vagaries of life is patchy.  Most people don’t live long enough to be eligible for a mean-tested age pension.   Orphans aren’t in a great position either, and there is nothing systematic for those who are seriously disabled.  There is a semi-public hospital system, but most medical costs fall on individuals and families, and there just isn’t much that can be done about many conditions.

There are public holidays, and school holidays, but no annual leave entitlements.  No doubt the comfortably-off take the occasional holiday away from home, but most don’t, because most can’t (afford it). Only recently has a rail route between the two largest cities been opened –  but it takes 20 hours for cities only 400 miles apart.

I wouldn’t choose to live in that country.  Would you?

And yet my grandparents did live there –  they were all kids then.  This was New Zealand 100 years or so ago, just prior to World War One.  I took most of that data from the 1913 New Zealand Official Yearbook.

In constructing the family tree those infant mortality rates were brought home more vividly, when I found one great uncle and one great aunt both of whom died aged less than one in the years just prior to World War One, both in comfortable Christchurch families.

Over the holidays, I read an old masters thesis –  written at Otago in 1950, and still occasionally cited –  that somewhat updated the picture, at least as regards household management and facilities.   According to the Maddison collection of data, New Zealand in 1950 still offered perhaps the third or fourth best material living standards anywhere in the world.   This particular student had conducted what appeared to be a reasonably well-designed survey, and set of interviews, with women in a sample of households in central Dunedin, looking at what appliances each household had, which of a variety of services they used, and so on.  The survey and interviews were conducted in early 1950.   Here is one summary table.

appliances 1950

You can see the spread of technology.   100 per cent of these households had an electric iron, and 72 per cent had a vacuum cleaner (presumably none would have in 1913).  76 per cent even had an electric toaster.  But many were still cooking using a coal range, just under half had an electric jug or kettle, and only 7 per cent had a refrigerator –  in a major city in one of the richest countries on earth, less than 70 years ago.   There were, of course, few (probably no) domestic freezers, microwaves, dishwashers –  or the myriad of more specialised appliances that now line the shelves of Briscoes.  And, on the other hand, sewing machines were widespread.

The student recorded the occupational status of each household (typically, the employment of the husband) and analysed the incidence of these appliances across different occupational classes.    The incidence of domestic technologies (those in the table above) in professional occupation households was, for example, about about twice that among labourers and pensioners (the differences being statistically significant).

The second strand of the survey that underpinned the thesis was the use of various external services.    When only 7 per cent of (these) households had a refrigerator –  and presumably none a freezer – fresh food was a major issue.

Bread for example

bread

(If you didn’t bake your own) it had to be collected every day it was baked.  According to the survey most walked to the shop to buy it.

Around half of the respondents had their groceries delivered, and around 10 per cent shopped using their own car.  The rest walked and carried the groceries home (typically from choice, since delivery was generally available).   Meat couldn’t be stored with long without a fridge, and the survey found that few butchers offered to deliver, so a walk to the butcher was pretty much a daily requirement.   Many of the respondents didn’t have a telephone, so even if delivery had been available, they’d still have to have walked to the butcher to place the order.

What of fruit and vegetables?

fruit and veg

The thesis goes on to look at the use of commercial laundry services, house-cleaning and window-cleaning services (including a slightly arch comment about the one respondent who claimed never to clean their windows), and the employment of people to assist in household chores or child-minding.

Perhaps like all writing, that 1950 thesis is also something of a period piece. There are asides about the price controls and butter-rationing still in place in post-war New Zealand, and a near unwavering sense that household management is a woman’s work.  And if there is a recognition of the importance of price –  this was, after all, a thesis partly done under the Economics Department

tech

there were also some curious asides

tech 2

Best national accounts estimates suggest that average material living standards in New Zealand in 1950 were not much more than a third of those today (and over that period New Zealand has had among the slowest rates of productivity growth of any country).   The data captured in that thesis help illustrate some of the concrete differences.

That thesis was my mother’s.  She is the great-granddaughter of that 1861 Yorkshire farm labourer, and the great-niece of that former mayor and MP – she was told to blame him when she couldn’t start school at five (Depression-era economies by the government of which he was an MP).  She was the first person on either side of my daughter’s family tree to graduate from university (at least in modern times), at a time when only about 5 per cent of young people went to university (and only about 1 per cent of women).  In one of the richest countries in the world.

It is her 91st birthday today.    There have been staggering material changes over the span of her life, let alone that of her grandparents and their generation.     Echoing Robert Gordon perhaps, I’m less convinced that if I live to 91, there will have been anything like that scale of improvement over my life.  I’m just about to walk to the butcher and supermarket.  Then again, in 1962 one couldn’t trace back generations of ancestors from the comfort of one’s own computer screen.

 

Productivity failure: Treasury clearly has the wrong model

In various commentaries on yesterday’s GDP data, I saw suggestions that the revisions to recent years’ data suggested that the New Zealand economy had been growing “strongly” in recent years.

As context for that observation, and perhaps shedding a bit of light on the sadly diminished expectations that appear to have taken hold in New Zealand, consider this chart, of real GDP per capita growth.

real GDP aapc 18

After a deep and quite long recession, the peaks in growth in per capita real GDP were a pale shadow of what had been achieved in the previous two economic cycles.   2 per cent annual per capita growth over the long-term would be a reasonably impressive result, but when the growth rate peaks at 2 per cent, and recessions come along every decade or so, it is no more than mediocre at best.  For the last couple of years  (these are annual average numbers) per capita growth has been at levels only previously experienced –  last 25 years –  on the eve of a recession.

But my main interest in yesterday’s numbers was the productivity estimates derived from them.  As I’ve been pointing out for a couple of years now, there has been next to no productivity growth at all in New Zealand for some years.  But in making that observation one is always somewhat at the mercy of the major annual SNZ data revisions.  Sometimes what looked to be in the data gets revised away completely.

How about labour productivity?  Recall that SNZ does not publish economywide productivity estimates –  there is no obvious reason why, when their Australian and British peers do –  so I’ve calculated one, using an average of the two measures of GDP (production and expenditure) and the two measures of hours (QES and HLFS).   And this is the resulting chart.

real GDP phw dec 18

No labour productivity growth at all for the last three years, and a total of 1 per cent productivity growth in the past six years.  Productivity growth under the previous Labour government wasn’t spectacular, but in the six years to the end of 2007 (just prior to the recession) we managed 8 per cent productivity growth.  But only 1 per cent this time round.    It is dreadfully bad, and there are no acceptable excuses.  You’ll hear people talk about global productivity growth slowdowns, and that is true to some extent, but it is largely irrelevant here, given that we start so far behind the leading OECD countries –  those at or near the productivity frontiers.   We have so much room to catch-up, and yet if anything again we’ve been drifting further behind.

Sadly there is little prospect of much change for the better.    Neither the previous government nor the current one appear to take New Zealand’s appalling productivity record seriously, in the sense of doing anything much about it, or even commissioning expert analysis and advice (reluctant as I’d be to suggest another “working group”).   And in a sense they’ve been accommodated in that stance by their self-proclaimed lead economic advisers, The Treasury.   Treasury publishes their HYEFU forecasts each December and buried in the supporting tables are forecasts for labour productivity growth (on an hours basis).    I could only find those tables back for the last five years, but here is what they have been forecasting (I’ve shown the four complete forecast years for each set of projections).

HYEFU forecasts for labour productivity growth published in Dec
Forecasts for June yrs 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
2016 2.2
2017 1.6 1.6
2018 1.1 2.1 2
2019 1.2 0.8 1.5 2
2020 0.7 1.3 1.7 1.1
2021 1.4 1.5 1.2
2022 1.3 1.2
2023 1.2

They seem to have become quite a bit more pessimistic about the medium-term outlook in their latest forecast, but they are still picking almost 5 per cent labour productivity growth in the next four years, when over the last four years we’ve had almost none.   Look at the first column in the table done at the end of 2014: Treasury was actually expecting quite strong productivity growth over that period.  It is pretty clear that they simply do not understand what is going on, and do not have even roughly the right model.  Their productivity projections are wrong, in material ways, year after year.   And if they might be getting a little less unrealistic in the latest set of forecasts, that is small consolation because there is no sign they are offering advice to the government that might turn around the disastrous underperformance.   Too busy with the feel-good “wellbeing Budget” perhaps?

It has been another poor year for New Zealanders at the hands of our policymakers and their lead advisors:

  • no serious action to address and reverse the house price disaster that successive governments have been inflicting on us now for 25+ years (house and land prices up again),
  • no action at all to address the decades-long productivity growth underperformance (particularly bad over the last few years) that now sees a country once among the most productive in the world languishing in the league tables among former eastern bloc states, far far behind our former peers among the leading group of OECD countries,
  • and no sign that either the government or the Opposition really care,
  • or that our Treasury really understands at all the factors that explain the utter (and ongoing) productivity failure.

Governments, of course, don’t create productivity.  But they can and do put roadblocks in the path, often initially unwittingly.    But over time every such roadblock comes with own vested interests.    There is the old line from Upton Sinclair about

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Perhaps that explains the resistance of many in the business community to the changes that are needed.   It can’t explain Treasury’s failure.  I suspect that for them, and perhaps for many of our politicians, it is more a matter of ideological commitments, and an unwillingness to shine the light on the issues and policies that really matter if we care at all about lifting economic performance for our fellow New Zealanders.

Whatever the explanation, it is well past time for a change of heart, and for beginning again to take seriously finally reversing the decades of (relative) failure.

 

Productivity: no relief in the hours data

What I actually wanted to write about briefly today was prompted by this story in the Financial Times a couple of weeks ago which reported on the results of OECD work suggesting that harmonising the measurement of hours worked would reduce by about half the (rather puzzling) large gap in estimated labour productivity (real GDP per hour worked) between the UK on the one hand and France (and Germany) on the other hand.

The UK’s statistical agency makes very few adjustments to self-reported estimates of people’s usual hours, but French number crunchers adjust survey responses to include holidays, sick leave, strikes and work done in the “illegal economy”.

If the figures were produced on a comparable basis it would reduce the productivity gap between the UK and France to about 10 per cent, the OECD estimates.

The OECD paper is here.  It is a pretty dry account of a worthy exercise in trying to get greater standardisation of the hours worked estimates.   For the European countries they produce indicative overall labour productivity estimates using the proposed harmonised methodology.  This is the summary chart.

oecd hours chart

The blue bars are the current official estimates, while the white dots show the OECD estimates based on the new methodology for the countries where there were material differences.   There are some pretty substantial differences: Austria and Sweden move up to join the group of countries (US, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark) which I’ve characterised as the OECD top-tier (setting Norway –  with abundant oil and gas –  tax-distorted Ireland, and tiny Luxembourg to one side).   But there are non-trivial differences for a number of countries further down the scale.   These revised estimates will be used in future OECD releases of productivity (levels) statistics.

When the FT article first appeared someone got in touch and asked if this could be part of the answer in New Zealand too.  My initial response was that the productivity gaps between New Zealand and the top-tier were so large there was no credible way any issue around hours measurement was going to explain much of it.   But it nagged in the back of my mind, so earlier this week I asked Statistics New Zealand about whether the OECD work had any implications for New Zealand productivity numbers.  SNZ don’t publish economywide productivity numbers, but their data is used by the OECD, who do.

I had a prompt and very helpful reply from Statistics New Zealand (kudos on this, if not on the Census).   They had apparently been fully consulted by the OECD researchers.  They had identified a handful of issues (which look quite minor in the scheme of things) around the New Zealand data, but the bottom line was

Recent correspondence by the authors  also noted: “As mentioned previously, but worth reiterating at this juncture, the paper currently only proposes changes to the estimates in a handful of countries (not including yourselves), based on available data.” In that regard, we consider ourselves to have fared better than some other countries reviewed in the publication.

Summary: our hours worked numbers look pretty much okay by international standards.  Unlike the Brits, our very large reported labour productivity gaps aren’t going to suddenly be revised downwards from this work.

That’s a shame  (substance is what it is, but reported numbers do matter).  But perhaps more sobering is that if our labour productivity estimates aren’t changing, and those of 10 other OECD countries (more than a quarter of the OECD membership) are, then our position relative to the rest of the OECD, mostly the advanced countries, now looks worse than it was previously.   In this chart, I’ve taken the latest official OECD numbers and made adjustments to the extent indicated in the OECD paper for Lithuania, Latvia,Poland, Portugal, Greece, the UK, Austria, and Sweden.

OECD GDP phw hours adj

On these estimates Lithuania – a part of the USSR as recently as 1991 –  is now only slightly behind New Zealand, likely to shortly be the third former eastern bloc country to overtake us.   And Poland –  whose experience I wrote about here last month –  is a lot less further behind that had been thought.    Even Greece and Portugal now look less bad relative to New Zealand, while the UK, Austria and Sweden are further ahead than we’d thought.  (Australia’s relative position also deteriorates of course.)

This isn’t a competition.  It is great news that Poland and Lithuania are doing even better than we thought.  But benchmarks are useful, and our performance relative to other advanced countries is –  and now has been for decades –  lousy.   And yet our political officeholders –  I refuse to call them leaders –  do nothing, and try to either spin the data or change the subject.

As I’ve noted previously, Turkey has now also almost reached New Zealand productivity levels –  something inconceivable just a few decades ago.  It was perhaps salutary to note news reports out of the climate talkfest in Poland last week that Turkey was objecting to being grouped as a “developed country”.   Their bid failed, but that they made it all should perhaps be a prompt to think that our own self-identification as an advanced economy is no longer as secure as it was –  a product more of history, than of current economic performance.  We really aren’t now much more than an upper middle income country, and that has consequences.

 

 

Europe’s economic performance

A commenter on yesterday’s Brexit post raised the question of how Europe (EU, euro area or whatever) had done overall relative to the rest of the advanced world.   The question sparked my interest, not just about the last 20 years or so (since the euro was created, and the comparison in yesterday’s post) but about somewhat longer spans of history.

At around the turn of the 20th century no one would have doubted that Europe dominated the world geopolitically, and it no longer does that.  That geopolitical rise was built on technology and associated economics, but just because the geopolitical moment has passed doesn’t necessarily mean the economic one has.

But who to compare Europe with?   Relative to the situation 100 years ago, some east Asian countries (in particular) have caught up considerably.  In most respects that is to be welcomed, and doesn’t tell one anything particularly enlightening about the performance of western Europe.   And some (most?) of the European countries that aren’t in the EU are nonetheless in agreements with the EU that mean that in many respects the policy regimes are similar.

And so here I’ve focused on a comparison with the European “offshoots”, notably the Anglo-shaped ones (the United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand), but with some reference also to Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.  Prior to World War One, Europe may have been the geopolitical centre of the world, but individuals in the typical offshoot countries enjoyed a better material standard of living than their peers in western Europe.

europe 1

The first two columns are the group of 11 western European “established” euro area member countries in yesterday’s post, and a subset of those that I’ve got interested recently (France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, and Denmark) which today have much the same level of average labour productivity as the United States.

In 1913, the Anglo countries were top of this particular economic heap, and the western European countries weren’t much different than average living standards in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.  In 1929 and again in 1955 (allowing some time for recovery from the war) the picture still wasn’t so different.  The five top European countries were doing better and the UK a bit worse, but average GDP per capita in the 11 European countries group was only about 10 per cent higher than those in the Uruguay, Argentina or Chile group.

And here is the same chart for 2017, using Conference Board data.

europe 2

It doesn’t take too much study to see where the (relative) decline has been centred: the European offshoots and the UK.  The picture is most vivid for the southern cone countries in Latin America, but isn’t less real for the Anglo countries.  It isn’t that, as a group, they’ve been surpassed by continental western Europe, but that western Europe has caught up. (Since this isn’t a New Zealand-centred post, we will quickly pass over the way those countries now outstrip New Zealand.)

But what about some time series charts for more recent periods?  In this chart I’ve shown the same two European groupings relative to the median for the Anglo offshoot countries (US, Australia, Canada, and NZ) using OECD data which start in 1970.

europe 3.png

(I don’t quite know what was going on around 1990, although I guess it is probably about the recession in many of the Anglo countries).

Over the full period since 1970, Europe has gained ground relative to the Anglo offshoots, on both groupings.  But there is, of course, a big divergence in the two series in the last decade or so.   For the top-5 north European countries, performance has remained pretty strong.  The median of those five countries now has average per capita incomes almost equal to those of median Anglo offshoot country (and, as it happens, the Europeans work fewer hours per capita to achieve that outcome).  But for the wider group, things have gone badly into reverse –  the influence of the poorly performing tail (Greece and Italy in particular, but also Spain and Portugal).

What about a similar chart for productivity?   The OECD doesn’t have labour productivity data for the whole period for Austria and Greece, so in this chart those two countries drop out of the comparison.

europe 4

It is a somewhat different picture.  The cylical effects large drop away, but (not unrelatedly) so does the marked difference between the two groups of euro-area countries over the last decade.   On this measure, Europe’s labour productivty growth has fallen behind that of the Anglo offshoots grouping over the last decade (although not in the first few years of the euro).  But perhaps the bigger story remains just how much average productivity in Europe has improved relative to that in the Anglo offshoots world over the whole period since 1970.  It is a huge relative gain for (western) Europe.

And what of a simple comparison between the leading group of European industrial countries and the US?  After all, if Europe has its laggard, the Anglo world has New Zealand (and Canada).  Here’s that chart.

europe 5

It is interestingly different.  Relative to the US, these leading European countries did poorly last decade.  But the underperformance hasn’t continued into this decade, despite the euro-area crises, even if little of the ground has been made up again.  But again, taking the longer view, surely the bigger story is one of the improvement in Europe’s relative performance since 1970.

And of course, amid all of this there has been no mention of the rest of Europe, the bits that spent decades in the Soviet orbit, and weren’t beacons of prosperity prior to that.    Many of those countries have been making progress in catching up with the Western European leaders even as, over longer runs of time, western Europe has been catching up with the (former) Anglo leaders.

And as one final chart here is snapshot of Conference Board estimates of the levels of labour productivity last year.

europe 6

Five of the top six are European, even if Singapore is almost at the heels of the European leaders.  (Ireland, Luxembourg, and Norway have higher numbers again, each with their own idiosyncrasies.)  Below Singapore, I’ve just put in a few countries out of interest –  China as much because on my walk this morning I listened to a podcast interview with a former European politician convinced that by 2038 China will dominate the world, and that this will mostly be a good thing.

Europe has had its good and its (very) bad times in the last 100 years or so, but when one looks at the data as a whole it is hard not to think that in economic terms Europe’s performance (and especially that of the northern European top tier) relative to the rest of the advanced world has increasingly been as good as it has been at any time since the New World was really opened up to trade and settlement.    By contrast, over the last 100 years or so, of the New World countries only the US has more or less managed to hold its own matching or exceeding the leading group (per capita income and productivity) of European countries.

For New Zealand, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina –  and even Australia –  (the Antarctic Rim countries) it all seems to have proved just too hard.

Sluggish productivity growth and financial crises

There has been some interesting material around recently on how many advanced economies (in particular) have undershot over the last decade or so the trends they appeared to be on previously.  Paul Krugman had an interesting column a couple of weeks back, and then the IMF had a whole chapter in their  latest World Economic Outlook on “The Global Economic Recovery 10 Years After The 2008 Financial Meltdown”.   Martin Wolf summarised and illustrated some of that chapter in his FT column last week.  Much of this work attempts to associate (causally) subsequent disappointing economic performance with the financial crises of 2008/09, something I’ve long been a little sceptical of.    The IMF also highlights that countries that didn’t have a financial crisis have shared in the underperformance.

I might come back to the IMF material (in particular) later but reading it prompted me to check out some New Zealand data.

As context, here is some OECD data for labour productivity (real GDP per hour worked) for the G7 countries as a group.

G7 productivity

The trendline shows what might have happened if the trend growth to 2005 had continued.  The gap at the end of the period is equivalent to a productivity shortfall of around 15 per cent.    Note that this productivity slowdown was clearly underway well before the financial crises.

And here is the New Zealand data.  Here I’ve used quarterly data, all the way up to 2018q2.

nz productivity

But this time the trendline extrapolates the trend in the actual data up to early 2012.  Because up to about that time there was no particular sign of a change in the trend. (And thus between 2005 and 2012 we actually did a little better than the G7 as a whole).

Over the six years since 2012, the gap between the actual data and the trendline translates back to a shortfall of about 8 per cent.  Real GDP per hour worked now would be around 8 per cent higher than it actually is –  with all the attendant implications for wages, consumption possibilities, and even government revenue – if that pre-2012 trend had been sustained.  And the pre-2012 trend had been pretty weak –  mostly we’d still been falling behind the rest of the advanced world.

It is always possible that much of the recent productivity shortfall will be revised away –  SNZ have, over the years, delivered some significant changes in history at times.  But I’m not aware of any particular reason to expect significant revisions (in any particular direction), so we simply have to work with the data we have.

As the G7 countries didn’t have a financial crisis in 2005, we didn’t have one in 2012.  In fact, we hadn’t had a systemic financial crisis at all since the late 1980s, and the localised (severe in the sector, but small economywide) finance companies crisis had been centred back in 2007 and 2008.  For New Zealand, there simply isn’t a plausible story in which financial crises –  domestic or foreign –  can explain our dismal productivity performance over the last half decade or more.    Neither the timing, nor the stylised facts around the New Zealand financial system, fit.

There are reasons why for countries at the productivity frontier a major financial crisis could impair domestic productivity growth even in a country that did not itself have a domestic financial crisis, but that isn’t a very relevant story here, New Zealand average productivity being so far below that in the leading group of countries (where productivity is about two-thirds higher than in New Zealand).

I’m not sure I have a fully compelling explanation for why New Zealand has done so poorly since around 2012 (my standard story encompasses several decades of persistent gradual  –  cumulatively stark  – underperformance, and period since 2012 looks –  on current data –  to have been unusually bad).   Perhaps the earthquakes, and the subsequent diversion of resources to a lot of vital, but low productivity, repair and reconstruction work is part of the story (as we knew from day one, in economic terms it was a nasty non-tradables shock that wasn’t going to be helpful).  Then again, the peaks of that work are now well behind us, and productivity growth has yet shown signs of improving.  Perhaps the strong terms of trade have been part of the story –  not stimulating business investment, which has been persistently weak, but boosting incomes and perhaps crowding out other stuff.  The real exchange rate –  not an exogenous influence –  got back to pre-recession levels from about mid-2011.   And, of course, the very sharp and substantial turnaround in the net immigration numbers –  also mostly not an exogenous development –  was getting underway from later in 2012.

Whatever the full explanation, the symptoms (eg weak business investment, shrinking exports and imports as a share of GDP) should be worrying, the outcomes (productivity, and thus potential incomes) are dreadful –  building on earlier decades of underperformance –  and the explanation can’t credibly lie in financial crises, domestic or foreign.

And nothing serious is being done about addressing this failure, by the last government, by the present one.  And The Treasury –  principal adviser to the government on such matters –  seems much more interesting in its Living Standards Framework and esoteric (and sometimes convenient) concepts of “wellbeing” than in actually advising on remedying the New Zealand productivity failure.

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