Savings and investment

Pottering in the IMF WEO database yesterday, I found myself looking at savings and investment trends.  Here is chart for advanced countries as a group, with the data expressed as a percentage of GDP.

adv country savings and investment

In some ways, it is quite a remarkable chart –  remarkable for what isn’t there.  Over the entire period I’ve shown –  2000 to (estimates for) 2018 – the gap between the aggregate savings rate and the aggregate investment rate has only twice exceeded 1 per cent of GDP.    The measures for the world as a whole –  where savings and investment have to equal each other, if correctly measured –  isn’t much less variable.  It is almost as if the advanced world countries just trade with and borrow from or lend to each other.   For what it’s worth, both investment and savings rates –  the former specially –  are now lower than they were in 2007.   That probably isn’t too surprising, given demographic trends and weak productivity growth.

And, of course, the aggregate chart covers a huge amount of variation in individual country experiences.   2007 was the peak of the last boom.   Here is a chart, by country, of the change in the gap between savings and investment rates from 2007 to 2018.

chg in s and i

Broadly speaking, current account deficits and surpluses have narrowed in advanced countries (eg Singapore’s surplus has shrunk a lot, and Latvia’s deficits have shrunk).  But, as the first chart shows, almost all that adjustment looks to have occurred within the advanced country grouping.  As it happens, New Zealand is the median country on this chart.

Of course, it isn’t so different in the rest of the world taken together –  the IMF’s class of emerging markets and developing countries.  Here is the aggregate savings and investment chart for that large group of countries.

s and i emerging

There was a big increase in both savings and investment shares in the 2000s, and if anything the aggregate investment share –  already far higher than in the advanced world –  still appears to have been trending upwards more recently.    (The picture isn’t much different if one simply looks at Asia –  often the focus of discussions about big imbalances.)

In the emerging/deveoping country group, there has been a bit more variability in the gap between savings and investment rates –  or at least there was in the peak boom years prior to 2008 –  but both at the start of the period and at the end, just like advanced countries as a group, emerging and developing countries as a group are basically financing all their own investment.  Again, there is huge variability in individual countries’ experiences –  China comes to mind, but so too do places like Argentina and Turkey.  But in aggregate –  and despite all the talk –  the advanced world finances itself and the emerging/developing world does the same.

I’m sure there are learned articles around on this issue (which I don’t have time today to try to track down) but it isn’t at all what (very) simple theory would have predicted.  There isn’t any simple obvious reason why savings and investment patterns should have tracked so closely within these aggregate groupings of countries, and yet not between individual countries.  It wasn’t, for example, how things were between the advanced and emerging economies in the late 19th century.  But it has been for the last couple of decades, and IMF projections don’t suggest they expect any change in the next five years.

I might try to dig out some articles addressing the issue, give it some more thought, and perhaps write another post down the track trying to better understand this pattern.

Savings rates in international context

In putting together yesterday’s post, I stumbled on something I hadn’t noticed previously.  In yesterday’s post I showed only New Zealand saving rates –  in particular, net national savings (ie savings of New Zealand resident entities, after allowing for depreciation) as a share of net national income.  The net national savings rate has picked up quite a bit in the last few years, although not to historically exceptional levels.

But here are the New Zealand and Australian net national savings rates plotted on the same chart.

net nat savings nz and aus

For the last couple of years, the net savings rate of New Zealanders has been higher than that of Australians.  I wouldn’t want to make very much of a couple of years data, and over, say, the last 25 years, the average savings rate of New Zealanders has still been a little lower than that of Australians.  But even that average gap has been much smaller over that period than over, say, the previous 20 years.

It isn’t a story you would typically hear from those who argue that savings behaviour is at the heart of New Zealand’s economic challenges.   Some will point to the compulsory private savings system now in place in Australia (phased in from 1992).  There is no easy way of assessing the counterfactual –  what if the system had never been introduced? –  but there is no obvious sign that the system has led to a lift in national savings rates in Australia, whether absolutely or relative to New Zealand.  Others will (rightly) highlight the big tax changes implemented here in the late 1980s which materially increased the tax burden on income earned by savers (in a way pretty inconsistent with the recommendations of a lot of economic theory).  I don’t think those changes were appropriate, or even fair, and would favour a less onerous regime.  But in the decades since the changes were made, our savings rates have been closer to those in Australia (where a less onerous tax regime applies as well) than they were in the earlier decades.

One policy change that may have made a difference is overall fiscal policy: the improvement in New Zealand’s overall fiscal position (reduction in general government debt) has been larger than that in Australia (largely reflecting the fact that we were in a bigger fiscal hole 25 or 30 years ago).   Higher average rates of public saving may have lifted average national savings rates to some extent.

What about other countries.  In a paper I wrote some years ago for a Reserve Bank/Treasury conference, I illustrated that over time New Zealand’s savings rate hadn’t been much different from that of some other Anglo countries.  Here is a more recent version of that sort of chart.

net nat savings anglo

New Zealand’s national savings rates have typically been below those in the OECD group of advanced countries as a whole (and perhaps particularly some of the more economically successful of those countries –  whether by chance, cause, or effect).   But even on that score the last few years look a little different.   This chart compares New Zealand against the median of the 22 OECD countries for which there is consistent data over the full period.

net national savings oecd

It is quite a striking change, and the reasons aren’t at all clear (see yesterday’s post on the puzzles around the New Zealand data).  Perhaps in time some of the rise in the New Zealand savings rate will end up being revised away.  Perhaps the lift will prove real, but temporary (as, say, happened for a few years around 2000). But if not, the apparent change in the relationship between our savings rate and those in other advanced countries should help keep our real interest rates –  and our real exchange rate –  a bit lower than otherwise.  If sustained, that would be expected to lift our economic prospects a bit, all else equal.

But it is worth remembering that, all else equal, a country with materially faster population growth than its peers should typically expect to have a higher national savings rate over time than its peers.   All else is never equal of course, but New Zealand continues to have a population growth rate well above that of the median advanced country.



New Zealand savings rate trends

Making sense of savings behaviour (the bit of flow income not spent) in New Zealand is a bit of a challenge.  Perhaps that is true of other countries as well, but I know their individual stories less well.  In the New Zealand case, it isn’t helped by the rather limited historical data: we have an official estimate of national savings back only as far as the year to March 1972, we only have a sectoral decomposition of savings (household government, etc) back to 1987, and there is no official quarterly data.  Australia, by contrast, has all this data back as far as 1959.

Our sustained period of high inflation didn’t help either.   A significant chunk of any interest rate is typically compensation for inflation, and on the other hand in inflationary periods depreciation (typically on a historic cost basis) tends to be understated.  Decades ago, the Reserve Bank was pointing out that in that era, inflation was flattering our national savings figures.

Here is the official series of net national savings expressed as a percentage of net national income (“net” in both cases being net of depreciation – or “consumption of fixed capital”, and “national” referring to the income and savings of New Zealand residents, as distinct from “domestic” –  as in GDP  –  being any activity occurring in New Zealand.)

net savings to nni jan 18

If your eye is anything like mine, you are probably drawn to those last few observations, suggesting quite a significant increase in the net national savings rate in the last few years.    It isn’t exceptional by historical standards –  the savings rate averaged just a little higher for several years in the early 2000s –  but is interesting nonetheless.   Of the other potentially interesting observations, I have no good story for why national savings rates were so much higher at the very start of the period (and thus can only lament the absence of a longer run of official data).   One thing is clear: the lowest points in the series (years to March 1992 and March 2009) coincide with severe recessions.   That probably isn’t too surprising.   But there isn’t anything really comparable on the other side: if savings rates have tended to be higher in cyclically stronger periods, the peaks certainly don’t coincide very strongly with cyclical economic peaks.   Perhaps the other thing to note is that for the last 40 years there has been no obvious trend in the series: fluctuations have been around a fairly constant average rate of 5 to 6 per cent.    Perhaps the reduction in the inflation rate masks an underlying modest trend improvement, but even if so, the high inflation era itself ended 25 years ago.

What about the sectoral breakdown of net national savings?   Here is the split between government and private savings.

savings rate jan 18

It is pretty well-recognised that there has been an inverse relationship between the two series.  Quite what that means, or why it occurs, is another question.    Some of it is about the automatic stabilisers built into the tax system (in particular).   Government tax revenue tends to increase more than proportionally in economic upswings, and vice versa (eg on the company tax side, many companies record losses in recession, and it may take a few years of a recovery before they start having a tax payment liability again).      Some may be about government spending taking the place of private spending: if the government suddenly starts paying for, say, childcare costs, households no longer have to and some of that money might now be saved.    Some might be about rational expectations of future fiscal adjustments –  not in some very long-term Ricardian sense, but just that political debate tends to compete to spend large surpluses when they do arise, and people may anticipate that they will soon have more money in their pockets (eg from tax cuts).   Whatever the reason, the pattern has been there over the last 30 years or so.  It is one reason to be a little cautious about the idea sometimes heard that, if raising national savings rates was some sort of national economic priority, it might be enabled by governments simply running larger surpluses.    History –  here and abroad –  suggests that such surpluses aren’t likely to be sustainable, at least when starting from a low debt position, and that the public will relatively quickly recognise that.

Having said that, it is interesting that over the last few years the increase in the national savings rate has been almost wholly reflected in a rise in government savings.  The private savings rate, by contrast, has been pretty stable for some years.

But what about the breakdown within the private savings rate.  This chart shows household and business savings separately, both as share of NNI.

savings rates jan 18 pte

It is useful to be reminded that for some decades now business (net) savings rates have been quite a bit larger than those of households.  Little commentary ever focuses on business savings rates.

Some commentators –  including, at times, the Reserve Bank –  tend to make quite a lot of the role of house prices in explaining household savings behaviour.   I’ve never really found that convincing, and suspect that fiscal policy may be more important an influence on the cyclical swings in the savings rate.  Why?   Well, consumption as a share of GDP has been remarkably stable over 30 years, in the face of huge increases in house prices, and quite substantial swings in house price inflation.   That shouldn’t really be a surprise: after all, higher house prices aren’t a net gain in the community’s real purchasing power, they just redistribute purchasing power a bit (to those just about the downsize and retire to the provinces, and away from those trying to purchase a first home).  And, as it happens, the low point in the household savings rate series came in the year to March 2003, just prior to the first great surge upwards in house prices.

And, of course, one keeps seeing talk –  typically from interested parties –  of the rising tide of Kiwisaver funds.  No doubt, there is a big increase in the stock of funds bearing a Kiwisaver label, but there is nothing in household savings data over the last decade that really suggests any material change in households’ overall rates of savings.   Those rates were very low when the government was running big surpluses, picked up somewhat when the government had big deficits (and the economic climate was uncertain) and have been falling off again in recent years as the budget moved back into (actual and prospective) larger surpluses.

As for business savings, I don’t know how to interpret the data at all.  There has been too little analysis (at least that I’ve seen) attempting to make sense of the swings in the years leading up to 2008 –  that really sharp fall in business savings rates well before the recession itself –  or of the extent of the subsequent recovery.    Terms of trade fluctuations, for example, don’t readily explain the patterns.    Of course, in the end  firms are ultimately owned by households, and the boundaries between the two may be somewhat permeable (and affected, for example, by tax changes and dividend distribution policies.)

I’m not one of those who is alarmed by New Zealand savings rates.   They are towards the low side in international comparisons (a topic for another day), but it isn’t obvious that that is because of specific policy distortions here which materially adversely affecting savings (and more so here than in other countries).   The government accounts have been fairly healthy for decades, our welfare and retirement income system discourages private savings less than those of many other countries, and although our tax system bears materially more heavily on institutional savings than the regimes of many other countries, one has to be cautious about putting too much weight on that argument: it is not, after all, as if savings rates have been materially lower since the late 1980s (when the tax system was markedly reoriented) than previously.   A highly successful economy would be likely –  based on international comparisons –  to see higher average savings rates, but that doesn’t mean that policies designed to boost savings rates could themselves do much to lift the performance of the economy (partly because policies designed to “boost savings” don’t themselves have a particularly good track record).   Rather, when firms are finding abundant investment opportunities, they will tend to be wanting to retain more in the business, and earning the rates of return that support those high business savings rates.

As a reminder, this post has been about flow savings rates.  Some people are keen to talk about asset revaluations, and gains in recorded wealth.     That is, largely, a different topic, but –  as already noted –  bearing in mind that we all have to live somewhere, higher house prices do not make us, as a community, better off.   Higher equity prices may well do so –  and thus US research used to find a stronger wealth effect on consumption from equity prices –  especially if those gains are reflecting underlying improvements in productivity etc.

Not bucking the longer-term trends

I was belatedly reading the speech given earlier this month by the Governor of the Reserve Bank.  His speeches often have had a strong tinge of cheerleading for the government –  either highlighting the positive indicators ministers and the former Prime Minister liked to cite, or highlighting as areas for concern only those aspects that the government itself had been raising (thus, for example,doing things about improving housing supply is regularly mentioned, but never the option of cutting back on the medium-term target level of immigration).

This speech was a little different.    The Governor took the opportunity to note that the current recovery –  itself interrupted by a double-dip recession in 2010 –  has been the weakest (in terms of average GDP growth rates) in New Zealand for many decades.  Under a heading “labour productivity growth has been particularly weak”, he explicitly drew attention to the estimate that “New Zealand’s trend rate of labour productivity growth is in the bottom third of OECD countries”, and also noted just how weak growth in total factor productivity growth has been.  The dismal record should be quite a challenge both for the new Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, and for opposition parties thinking about the policy proposals they will campaign on in the next year’s election.

But the paragraph that caught my eye in the Governor’s speech was this one.

New Zealand’s household net savings rate improved by 8 percentage points in the period 2008 to 2013 (from minus 6 percent to positive 2 percent of household disposable income (figure 5)).  Over this period, New Zealand’s overall savings rate (ie including savings by the business and public sectors) increased by around 5 percentage points, and this has been an important factor behind the improvement in New Zealand’s ongoing current account deficit and the decline in net external liabilities as a share of GDP (this ratio has declined from 84 percent of GDP in 2009 to around 63 percent of GDP currently).

It prompted me to go and have a look at the recent annual national accounts data (which will have been released just after the Governor gave his speech).

It was the comment on the overall national savings rate that surprised me.   Here is a chart of the net national savings rate as a share of net national income.

net national savings.png

There has certainly been quite a rebound in the national savings rate since the recessionary trough in the year to March 2008, but it does look mostly cyclical.  The latest observation is around the same level we saw in the year to March 2005.   There isn’t any sign that overall savings rates in New Zealand, averaging across the cycle, are any higher than they have been on average in recent decades.

Here is a shorter span of history for the household savings rate (also as a share of NNI).

household savings.png

The trough in this series was the year to March 2003, just before the big housing boom of the 00s got underway.   There was quite a recovery in the last years of the economic boom and during the recession and immediate aftermath.  But the steady fall in the household savings rate over the last few years also suggests nothing very different from history.    If the current household savings rate is higher than the earlier troughs, at the same time the government savings rate is lower than it was then.

Here is the chart for the same period of government and private savings rates.  “Private” includes –  and is typically dominated by –  business saving.

govt and pte savings.png

For a variety of reasons, when government savings rate rise private savings rates tend to fall, and vice versa.  The really sustained recovery since 2007 has been in business savings –  a component of savings that is typically too little analysed.

The Governor’s comments focused on changes in the savings rate(s).  But the other side of the equation –  particularly as it affects the interpretation of the current account –  is investment.

Here is the long-term chart of investment (national accounts definition –  gross fixed capital formation) as a share of GDP.

gfcf dec 16.png

Again, as I’ve illustrated previously, we’ve had a cyclical rebound in investment rates.  But it isn’t an impressive rebound.  The latest observation –  this in an economy which the Bank thinks has perhaps a small positive output gap – is well below the peaks in 1976 and 1986, and around the same level as the peak in 1996.   The economy went into the 1990s recovery with a massive overhang of commercial property, so it perhaps wasn’t surprising that overall investment didn’t surge to really high levels.  By contrast, in this cycle earthquakes destroyed quite a lot of commercial, residential and government capital stock –  necessitating a lot of gross fixed capital formation just to restore the capital stock to what it was pre-earthquakes.

In many other OECD economies, a gradual decline in the investment share of GDP over time wouldn’t seem odd, as the population growth rates have been trending downwards.  In many cases those countries now have flat or slightly falling populations, and just don’t need as much new investment to maintain capital/output ratios.    But that isn’t the story of New Zealand.  Over the period of that GFCF chart there has been no trend decline in New Zealand’s population growth and in the last year or two, our population has grown as rapidly as at any time since the 1950s.  This chart is a few quarters old, but it illustrates the point.


I wouldn’t want to make very much of the narrowing in the NIIP position.  Again, the Governor referred to a trough in 2009 and compared it to the current position.  But the NIIP position tends to cycle, and over 25 years there hasn’t been much change in the trend level.

But if anything, one could run a slightly contrarian position that a better-performing New Zealand economy over the last few years –  one where more firms wanted to invest more –  the current account deficit would have been wider and the negative NIIP position somewhat larger.  Overall, weak investment looks to be a symptom of weak demand –  both domestic and external.  Firms simply haven’t seen many great opportunities for investment and so, even with all the rebuild and repair work, overall investment levels have been pretty subdued.

And it isn’t as if the economy has been fully employed during that period.  The Governor notes in his speech that the unemployment rate is below the 20 year average. But it is above official estimates of the NAIRU and has been for eight years now.  It isn’t as if there has been an inflation problem either: core inflation has been below target for years now.  And the exchange rate has been extraordinarily high.

There are limits to what monetary policy can do, but stimulating demand –  all else equal –  is what it can do; in fact, it is the reason why we have discretionary monetary policy at all.    The data –  current account, investment rate, as well as the inflation and unemployment rates –  suggest that monetary policy should have been doing more over the last few years.  That it hasn’t is a choice the Governor has made, but having made those choices –  consistently mistaken in my view –  he shouldn’t be trying to sell as a virtue one of the key symptoms of the persistent weakness of demand.

The IMF Report: saving and vulnerability

The IMF released its latest Article IV report on New Zealand yesterday.  There are also some background research papers released with the report, and I might come back to look at them later.

There aren’t material surprises in the IMF’s views in the full report, which builds on the Concluding Statement released at the end of the staff mission here last November.  My comments about that statement (here) were fairly critical, noting both the marked change in the messages from one review to the next, and the fairly limited evidence base for many of the policies the Fund was recommended –  quite a few of which were a considerable distance removed from the core business, or expertise (macroeconomic policy and financial stability) of the International Monetary Fund.

Today I wanted to focus just on the Fund’s claim that there is a major policy problem as it affects savings in New Zealand, a proposition on which much of the rest of the report rests.  The Fund talks of a “chronically low national saving” rate, and worries about the vulnerability that allegedly results from a net international investment position (NIIP) of around -65 per cent of GDP.  In the Fund’s Board discussion, we read that “Directors agreed that raising national, and in particular private, saving is critical to reducing external vulnerabilities from the still heavy reliance of offshore funding”.  Note the strong words:  action is “critical”.

I’ve shown a version of the following chart before.  It is common to present charts of net national savings as a per cent of GDP, but to do so involves two errors: first, the numerator is net but the denominator is gross (the difference is depreciation), and second, the numerator refers to savings of New Zealanders and the denominator refers to economic activity occurring within New Zealand, whether owned by foreigners or New Zealanders.  A more conceptually meaningful approach is to do as I do here: compare the net savings of New Zealanders with the net national income of New Zealanders.  Here it is shown all the way back to 1970.

net savings to nni feb 2016

Savings of New Zealanders (public and private combined) as a share of income have been consistently lower than the median of the whole group of OECD countries.  But there is a very diverse range of experiences, and cultures, within the OECD group.  I’ve also shown the comparison with the median of the five other, probably more culturally similar, Anglo countries (US, UK, Canada, Australia, and Ireland).  Over the 45 year period, mostly we don’t look much different from the Anglo median –  we did worse in the years of very large fiscal deficits in the late 70s and early 80s, but other than the experiences are pretty similar on average.     Where is the evidence of a chronic savings problem?  And it is no defence simply to focus on private, or (worse) household savings: first, the boundaries between household and business savings are blurred, and second, the private sector takes account (typically implicitly) the savings behavior of governments over time.  New Zealand governments have done less badly than most for some decades.

The IMF makes no systematic effort to identify reasons why national savings rates might have been as they are.  Instead, they mostly repeat old lines that don’t have much basis to them.  For example, they assert that an overwhelming proportion of household assets are in the form of housing, even though new Reserve Bank estimates –  published almost a year ago –  make clear that that claim was never justified.  After all, relative to population, there is now a consensus that we have too few houses not too many.  The Fund also asserts that there is something wrong with the tax treatment of housing, but appears to make no effort to illustrate, whether in a cross-country or time series context, how that has contributed to national savings behavior.  They urge changes to Kiwisaver and the NZS, but again make little effort to illustrate how policy parameters in these areas explain savings behaviour.  All in all, it seems like a rather weak basis on which to rest quite strong policy recommendations.

The other aspect of this issue which they just seem to take for granted is the alleged vulnerability that the NIIP position gives rise too.  Buried deep in an Annex to the report, they do produce a chart making clear that there has been no worsening trend in the NIIP position for over 25 years –  the negative position tends to widen in boom times and narrow in downturns, but has fluctuated around a pretty stable trend level.  At present, the negative NIIP position is actually below (less negative) than the average since 1988.

The report has no analysis of the nature of the vulnerability that this NIIP position gives rise to –  even though addressing this vulnerability is considered “critical” by staff and Board.  And it gives no example of any country, anywhere, ever,  in which a stable (but quite high) negative NIIP position over 25-30 years has been (causally) followed by a crisis.  I’m pretty sure there are none –  and remind that IMF that for most of its first 100 years, New Zealand’s negative NIIP position was materially larger than it has been over the last 25 years, again without ending in crisis.  There are plenty of cases where a rapid worsening in the NIIP position over a few years led to trouble –  Spain, Ireland, and Greece are three recent advanced country examples –  but that is a very different situation from the New Zealand situation in recent decades.  As has been the case for many years, the IMF simply seems to struggle to come to grips with New Zealand.

Most of the negative NIIP position is represented by (net) banking system borrowing from abroad.  But that creates serious macroeconomic risks only if the assets that are financed by the overseas borrowing are of poor quality.  Often that is the case when foreign debt is rising quickly  –  but that hasn’t been the New Zealand story.  Perhaps the Fund believes that the New Zealand banking system is shaky?   But Directors noted that “the banking system is resilient and well-supervised” –  the resilience conclusion is certainly backed by the Reserve Bank’s own stress tests, which I discussed at length last year.

New Zealand deserves better quality analysis and insights from its membership of the IMF than it has had in the main part of this report.

The report also contains brief sections headed “Authorities’ views” –  the wording of which will have been approved by our Treasury and the Reserve Bank.   I was surprised to find that “the authorities agreed that raising national saving was an important policy objective”, going on to state that the authorities would “consider measures to boost private saving….in the future”.  There isn’t much elaboration of the point, but the statement itself was something of a surprise.  Last I had heard, the Minister of Finance was very sceptical that there was a “national saving problem” in New Zealand, and particularly that there was an issue materially amenable to policy remedies.  If one can’t convincingly identify policy distortions that materially lower national saving rates relative to those in other countries, it is hard to see a good case for policy interventions to encourage people to save when, on their own, they would not.    It would be interesting to know what was behind this latest, apparent, change of view.




National savings

The annual national accounts data were released a few weeks ago by Statistics New Zealand. They got little media attention, which isn’t surprising, but I like fossicking in the spreadsheets. Apart from anything else, they provide an annual update on some of the longest official time series data we have. Australia has full national accounts data back to 1959, and the United States provides official data back to 1929, all on current methodologies. By contrast, we have real quarterly data only back to 1987, and annual nominal national accounts data back to 1972.

The (flow) national savings rate has had a lot of focus in the New Zealand debate over the years. Indeed, early in the term of the current government, there was even an official Savings Working Group. A lot of discussion focuses on household savings, but I prefer to focus on national savings (ie the savings of New Zealanders, New Zealand-owned companies, and the New Zealand government). It provides a good basis for international comparisons, and isn’t messed up by the somewhat-artificial boundaries between households, corporates, and governments.

I also prefer to use net savings data rather than gross savings (the difference is the estimate of depreciation, or “consumption of fixed capital”).  Net savings is the real resources added to wealth.  And if I’m using net savings data I need to use net national income data.

As I highlighted a few weeks ago, our national savings rate has been relatively low by the standards of the typical OECD country. And it is really quite low when compared with the net national savings rate in Australia – but it has been for decades, including the period well before Australia introduced compulsory private superannuation savings. On the other hand, our net savings rate has been strikingly similar to median of the other Anglo countries.

This is what the chart looks like, starting in the year to March 1972, and end in the year to March 2015.

net savings to nni nz
Of course, the sharp fall in the series at the start of the period really catches the eye. But the other thing that strikes me is just how stable average the savings rate has been over the subsequent 40 years, fluctuating around 5 per cent. As you’d expect, it falls quite sharply in recession (see 1991 and 2008/09) – corporate profits tend to fall in recessions, and fiscal deficits widen – but since 1975 there has been no trend in the series at all [1] .

Which creates difficulties for those looking for explanations for our relatively modest national savings rate:
• Some reckon tax incentives might help. But actually we had a very generous tax treatment of superannuation and life insurance until the late 1980s, and a rather ungenerous one (defenders would say “neutral”) since. But the difference isn’t visible in the aggregate data.
• Some reckon a liberal approach to New Zealand Superannuation might explain something. But in the years to March 1975 and 1976 we had a compulsory private scheme, then we had very liberal universal NZS at 60, then we had means-testing and a fairly rapid increase in the age of eligibility. None of it is very evident in the data.
• Some talk about “wealth effects” from rising house prices dampening savings. But the biggest house price bust in modern New Zealand history was after 1974, and the biggest boom was over 2003 to 2007. None of it is very evident in the data.
• The (non-superannuation) welfare state has got bigger over the period, while tertiary education went from being largely “free” for a small group of people, to really rather expensive for a huge number of people. None of it is very evident in the data.
• Some reckon financial liberalisation will have dampened savings, enabling people to bring forward consumption in ways they couldn’t previously. The real freeing-up of the system didn’t start until the mid 1980s. But the difference isn’t obvious in the aggregate data.

• Kiwisaver hasn’t been compulsory, but the take up was sufficiently large that if advocates had been told in advance that it would be that high most would have thought it would have boosted national savings rates. But neither in the more formal research nor in a simple chart like this is it particularly evident.

I’m not suggesting none of these factors made any difference. I’m sure in many cases they did, and (for example) the increase in the NZS eligibility age helped put the government in the position of running large surpluses in the years leading up to the 2008 recession (which was also the peak in the national savings rate). But it isn’t easy to point to a single factor, or even an identifiable set of factors, to explain New Zealanders’ savings choices. An alternative way of saying that is that it is not easy to point to what one might change if one were convinced (which I’m not) that the national savings rate is a policy problem. 40 years of a constant mean is really quite a long time.  More-formal modelling might shed some light, but I wouldn’t be optimistic.

Discussions of savings often focus on households, and then secondarily on the government’s own finances. But they tend to ignore the role of business savings. I’ve wondered whether the modest rate of national savings partly reflects the perceived lack of profitable opportunities in New Zealand. As I’ve pointed out before, business investment as a share of GDP has been quite low in New Zealand for decades, and less than one might expect in a country with quite a fast-growing population (Austria or Belgium need to devote a smaller share of their income each year to adding new shops and offices etc than, say, New Zealand or Australia do). Firms might save more if the growth prospects were better – if, say, real interest rates were nearer those in the rest of the world, and if the real exchange rate had been lower. But in that case, savings rate wouldn’t be the cause of any problems, but just another symptom.

It is one of those areas where better data might help shed a little further light. What was going on with that fall in the national savings rate in 1974/75? It looks a lot like the impact of the collapse in the terms of trade.  But the savings rate has never recovered, and we don’t even know if it was exceptionally high in the early 1970s.  Contemporary estimates suggest that business savings were almost half of private savings – from perhaps a third a decade earlier. Unfortunately, the earlier estimates aren’t compiled on the same basis as the modern national accounts. For what it is worth, here is a chart for the full period since 1954/55, using data published in the New Zealand Official Yearbooks (in this case the 1975 one). There is a hint of national savings rates rising in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it is hard to know, and hard to know whether the average savings rate for the last 40 years is really lower than it was in the earlier post-war decades.

net savings to nni 2
Surely we should be funding Statistics New Zealand – or at a pinch some good academic researcher – to produce longer backdated series of our national accounts. Better data on its own probably wouldn’t answer all our questions about New Zealand’s longer-term economic performance, but it surely couldn’t hurt. Would it provide value to the plumber from Masterton? Hard to tell, but good data at least opens the possibility of better policy.

NB: Before anyone comments, this post is dealing entirely with the flow rates of savings from current income.  It is not dealing, at all, with stock measures of wealth, or how they might aggregate to some sort of national balance sheet.

[1]  In the years of high inflation and high public debt, the story is a little complicated because much of what is recorded as interest is in effect a principal repayment.  Grant Scobie (and co-authors) looked at that effect here.

Compulsory enrolment in Kiwisaver

I’m puzzled.

Fresh from removing the sign-on bonus for new KiwiSaver members, Bill English is now talking about compulsorily enrolling everyone (well, all employees I assume) in KIwiSaver.  This was National Party policy to do at some stage, when the government’s books were in surplus, but it has now got cheaper to do because people could now be forced to join, at no upfront cost to the government.

It is far from clear what problem the Minister of Finance thinks he would be addressing.   Everyone who has started a new job since 2007 has already been auto-enrolled, and many others have chosen to enrol.  My guess would be that at least half of those who were in labour force in 2007 have changed job since then, and a large number have entered the labour force for the first time. All those people were auto-enrolled.   Most of those who have never joined, or have opted out, or subsequently taken a contribution holiday, have presumably made a considered choice.  Perhaps they can’t afford to be in the scheme now.  Perhaps paying off the mortgage is a higher priority.  Perhaps they are among that large group for whom NZS will already more or less maintain their pre-retirement standard of living.

I had hoped that the government might now leave KiwiSaver to wither on the vine.  After all, there is not much evidence that the scheme so far has boosted national savings, and there isn’t an elderly poverty problem.  Enhancing the retirement income of the relatively comfortable doesn’t seem like an obvious public policy priority.

The Minister did once regard New Zealand’s relatively low rate of national savings as a problem, but Google throws up no references along those lines in the last 3-4 years.  If he no longer regards national savings as a policy problem,  I happen to agree with him (I’ll get to savings as I carry on discussing the reasons behind NZ’s high interest rates).

Surely provision for retirement savings can’t be the problem either?   After all, this government has ruled out any change to the age of eligibility to NZS, and if they have not ruled out lowering the rate or means-testing they have certainly shown no appetite for doing anything.  And, as is well-known, New Zealand’s rate of poverty among the elderly is low, absolutely and by comparison with other countries.  Of course, high house prices may make that picture less rosy in a few decades’ time, but the government knows that freeing-up housing supply is the answer to that one.

And, in any case, although it is proposed to auto-enrol all employees, they could still choose to opt out.  Indeed, given that it is almost exclusively people now over 25 who have not been auto-enrolled already, one might reasonably assume that a large proportion of those who would be compulsorily enrolled if the Minister’s proposal went ahead might choose to opt out.  Yes, I know all the “nudge” literature, but recall that this experiment would not be on the population as a whole, but on a self-selected group of whom many had already deliberately chosen not to join.

And if income adequacy in retirement were really the concern, surely (a) compulsory contributory membership (not just initial enrolment), and (b) something that encompassed the whole population (business owners, welfare beneficiaries, stay-at-home parents) not just employees, would be the way to go.  But, fortunately, that doesn’t seem in prospect.

The National Party’s website says that it believes as follows:

The National Party seeks a safe, prosperous, and successful New Zealand that creates opportunities for all New Zealanders to reach their personal goals and dreams.

We believe this will be achieved by building a society based on the following values:

  • Loyalty to our country, its democratic principles, and our Sovereign as Head of State
  • National and personal security
  • Equal citizenship and equal opportunity
  • Individual freedom and choice
  • Personal responsibility
  • Competitive enterprise and reward for achievement
  • Limited government
  • Strong families and caring communities
  • Sustainable development of our environment

At least three of those values –  “individual freedom and choice”, “personal responsibility”, and “limited government” look inconsistent with auto-enrolling everyone in KiwiSaver.  Perhaps they might justify it under “personal security”, but I’d assumed that has to do with crime, and anyway, as noted already, elderly poverty just is not a major problem in New Zealand.

Compulsory enrolment of all employees in KiwiSaver smacks of something from The Treasury, and its “living standards framework”. But last time I looked, that framework put no independent value on things like individual freedom and choice, except insofar as they served some other end.

The Minister also appears to be using the dubious argument that Kiwisaver is an excellent investment.  If it were really so, you would think that after eight years most people might have got the idea.  But in fact, it is true only on very shaky assumptions.  Certainly, for the time being there is an annual government subsidy of up to about $500.    That is worth having, but it is hardly transformative.  In fact, for most people with a mortgage and contributing to Kiwisaver, it won’t even cover the tax wedge.  So the Minister’s claim is true only if the employer’s contribution to Kiwisaver would not otherwise be paid to the employee.  In the short-term, for any particular job or employee that might be true –  that (and the subsidies) was the main reason I joined Kiwisaver.  But in the medium to long-term surely the Minister of Finance does not believe that returns to labour will be materially affected by whether people take their income in the form of Kiwisaver contributions or in straight wages and salaries?

So New Zealand

  • Does not have a national savings policy problem (although the national savings rate does raise some interesting questions)
  • Has little or no evidence that KiwiSaver so far has made any material difference to national savings anyway
  • Does not have an elderly poverty problem
  • Has a government which is firmly committed to the current NZS system.
  • Has most people already in KiwiSaver, while  those in the workforce who aren’t in KiwiSaver will already mostly have made an active choice to stay outside.
  • Has a governing party that proclaims commitment to personal responsibility and individual freedom and choice.

And for most people in their middle years, Kiwisaver involves a very nasty tax wedge.

So quite why would the Minister of Finance think it was good policy to compulsorily enrol the rest of the employees in the country in KiwiSaver?