The Secretary to the Treasury and productivity

As I noted in Saturday’s post about The Treasury, the Secretary to the Treasury –  he of the rushed citizenship presumably on the grounds of some exceptional services the previous government thought he might offer to New Zealand –  gave a speech last week on productivity.

One can feel a little sorry for senior public servants venturing into the public domain.  After all, there are limits as to what the head of a government department can really say, while still retaining the confidence of his/her minister (let alone that of the State Services Commissioner).  Political masters change and with those changes there are changes in what can’t really be said in public by their most senior advisers.  All of which is probably a good reason why heads of government departments shouldn’t really give any but the most anodyne (or perhaps obscurely technical) public addresses (in fact, most simply keep quiet in public – do a search for speeches by the Secretary of Justice or the chief executive of MBIE and you won’t find much, if anything).  After all, their primary job is to advise ministers, not to act as public lobbyists for their own policy preferences  Upon leaving office they are, of course, free to champion whatever causes they like.

But all that assumes some idealised fine public servants, who have laboured to generate judicious but penetrating insights.  Wise men and women whose words shed light in dark corners, enrich our understanding, and could –  if only we listened – help resolve some of these intractable challenges that face any modern government and society.

And then there are the Makhlouf speeches.  I written about several of them here (eg here, here, here and here).  They often read fluently enough at a first glance, before quickly turning to dust under any close examination.

Last week’s effort wasn’t that much better.  At least the Secretary to the Treasury was talking about productivity –  something I noted was strangely totally absent from The Treasury’s Briefing to the Incoming Minister last year – but he didn’t have a credible or robust story to tell.

The speech was delivered in Queenstown, so Makhlouf began with some local colour –  some good, some bad.  Among the less positive indicators was

The mean income for people in the Queenstown-Lakes District in 2017 was about $51,000 compared with the national mean of $59,000.  With low incomes but the highest average weekly rental cost in the country and an average house value of more than $1.1 million, the housing affordability problem in Queenstown is in the same league as Auckland.

To which the Secretary’s response was

In response, the Government’s Housing Infrastructure Fund is contributing $76 million in 10-year interest-free loans to support an increase in Queenstown’s housing supply.

So the Secretary to the Treasury now thinks interest-free loans by the government are sensible economic policy?    This isn’t supposed to be some local MP’s party-political broadcast, but the Secretary to the Treasury, guardian of the public purse.

The Secretary then touches on the failure that is New Zealand productivity growth, recognising that we’ve done poorly (while taking no responsibility as head of the leading economic advice agency).  But there is nothing new, and litttle specific.

There are various unsupported assertions  (emphasis added)

We know that our productivity levels stem from a number of factors including weak international connections, the small size of domestic markets, low investment in knowledge-based capital and weaknesses in the allocation of labour.

as if symptoms (in some cases arguable ones) are causes, and then a string of platitudes

It remains a fundamental truth that successful economies need, among other things, a stable and sustainable macroeconomic framework, sound monetary policy and a prudent fiscal policy. It remains true that a well-regulated financial system matters, that properly functioning markets matter, that price signals matter and that incentives matter. And, perhaps most important of all, it remains true that productivity matters.

No doubt largely true (I’d quibble about the “well-regulated” financial system, substituting “sound and stable) but New Zealand has had these features for decades, and we are just slowly drifting further behind.

The second half of the speech builds off this paragraph

The Treasury believes there are a number of factors that always matter for productivity: our human capital, the management of our resources, our international connections, the dynamism of our markets and the effectiveness of our rule-making. I want to say a few words about each of these. To improve our productivity we will have to be more effective in their utilisation and the interactions between them.

First, skills matter.  As if we didn’t know.

There seemed to be two areas of focus

In the Treasury’s view, to help achieve this there should be an emphasis on attainment of cognitive and non-cognitive foundational skills and social skills that are transferable and support life-long learning, as well as greater rates of progression to higher tertiary qualifications.

But I’m not sure what the first half of the sentence really means (Great Books programmes for all, to teach people to think and write?) and the second half looks like a bid for even more tertiary education, when there is little sign that the massive public and private spend on tertiary education in recent decades has been reflected in commensurate increases in productivity or earnings.  And none of this seems embedded in some comparative analysis about whether, and to what extent, New Zealand is doing worse than other advanced countries.

The other specific was slightly surprising

I should also add that we will need to look carefully at whether our social welfare system – which was initially set up to help people make transitions from one job to another in what was expected to be a similar trade – is optimal for the changing world ahead of us.

I presume he means the bits of the system around the unemployment benefit (or whatever it is now called) since most of the social welfare system wasn’t set up to support employment transitions at all (age pensions, widows’ pensions, DPB, sickness and invalid pensions etc), but as his current political masters have, as a matter of policy, been weakening the sanctions in the welfare system that were, supposedly, designed to assist such transitions, I’m left a bit puzzled as to what the Secretary means by this cryptic observation.  Perhaps he is toying with notions of a Universal Basic Income (but, charitably, I’ll assume not)?

Then there is a section on resources.  Some of it seems sensible enough, including around water use rights.  I’m right with him when he favours congestion charging.  But I’m left wondering whether he or The Treasury really believes that either is a significant part of the story explaining our severe relative underperformance.  I don’t.

And lets just say that I rather doubt the robustness of The Treasury’s analytical framework when the Secretary includes these sentences.

The Emissions Trading Scheme is a good example of a tool that can promote the more productive use of resources. Including agriculture within its scope would provide incentives for investment in R&D or innovation in on-farm practices and improve productivity.

An ETS can, no doubt, be a good mechanism for constraining emissions, and even for doing so in a way which might be economically efficient.  But it simply isn’t a way to improve New Zealand’s economywide relative productivity and/or incomes.  Impose an impost (perhaps quite justifiably) on firms in a particular industry, and those who survive will have to adapt their production techniques, perhaps even lifting their own firm productivity.  But it will also considerably shrink the industry in question, when it is an internationally tradable industry, when efficient alternative technologies don’t yet exist, and when other countries aren’t adopting the intervention The Treasury proposes.  All else equal, New Zealanders would be poorer rather than richer if this bit of the Secretary’s prescription was adopted –  the government’s own commissioned economic modelling, by NZIER says as much.

Then Makhlouf moves on to “international connections”, one of the ill-defined buzzwords in this debate.

Mostly it is just empty conventional slogans

Improving the flow of people, capital, trade and ideas will help improve productivity. Strong people-to-people relationships build confidence and understanding and promote learning. They help our businesses to identify capabilities that will help them improve their productivity and ultimately compete and succeed in both domestic and global markets.

All of which would have sounded good in 1984, and yet we greatly liberalised immigration, got rid of most tariff barriers, signed up to all manner of trade agreements, and……the productivity gaps are larger than they were, and actual trade (exports and imports as a share of GDP) is smaller than it was.  The Secretary is either unaware of these basic facts, or simply chooses to ignore them.

I’m closer to the Secrerary’s position when it comes to foreign investment –  where he has to step delicately around the recent legislative choices of his masters –  but there is no sign that he has thought hard about why foreign investment here isn’t more attractive or, indeed, why not many New Zealand based firms do much foreign investment themselves.

There is a section on “markets” that I’m going to skip over.  I don’t particularly disagree with much in it, but there also isn’t much specific there, and nothing to suggest The Treasury has thought seriously about the connection to sustained New Zealand relative productivity underperformance.  Much the same goes for the section on Rules.  I’m all in favour of robust policy evaluation –  it is a shame it hasn’t been applied to Treasury advice on productivity –  and I’m sure there are real opportunities there, but again is there any evidence that things on that score are worse here than in other countries?  Perhaps, but if so he doesn’t mention it.

(The dig at the massive taxpayer subsidy to the cattle industry was interesting, and welcome

Speaking of incentives, I find the situation around the eradication of mycoplasma bovis an interesting one. Responsibility for the genesis and subsequent spread of the mycoplasma bovis outbreak sits with the cattle industry. The question is, should the taxpayer compensate those affected, or should the industry pay for the consequences of the industry’s making? We might also ask what incentives are signalled to the industry by these different options.

And yet, how different is it anywhere else? )

There was an odd section on co-operatives, as if it was a matter for governments to decide on the appropriate sort of vehicles through which business activity is undertaken, and one on public sector productivity, which was really no more than a footnote.

And then there was tax reform.  Mostly, it was in praise of the New Zealand tax system, including the –  highly questionable –  claim, that

the New Zealand tax system is much less distortionary than the tax systems of other OECD countries

That might be true, more or less, if we look only across activities in the same time period, but is demonstrably not true once we take account of intertemporal dimensions.  Not consuming your income now and delaying until later (ie saving –  particularly retirement savings) is much more heavily penalised by the tax system here than in almost any other advanced economy.  That is a distortion The Treasury has been consistently reluctant to address or (it seems) even acknowledge.

There is also no recognition of the possible connections between low rates of foreign investment, and low rates of business investment (symptoms he touches on elsewhere) and business tax regime, where (for example) our company tax rate –  a key consideration for foreign investors –  is now towards the upper end of the OECD range.

And then it was interesting to see that in a speech on productivity, the specific policy proposal that the Secretary devotes most space to (in the entire speech, not just this section) was the call for a capital gains tax.

But there is one area where we stand out as an outlier and which I think needs further attention. The current approach to the treatment of capital income – in particular, capital gains – is highly inconsistent. Some gains are already taxed but others are not. The result is therefore something of a patchwork, the results of which can be unfair, regressive and distortionary. A more consistent approach to the taxation of capital gains would increase the fairness of the tax system, and reduce distortions by levelling the playing field between different types of investments.

For these reasons, the Treasury has long believed there is a real case to extend the taxation of capital income. I recognise that this would come with its own risks, and give rise to higher compliance and administration costs. But there are interventions available to address these risks. The extent to which the impacts are realised – whether positive or negative – will depend significantly on the design of policy.

Some readers will support a capital gains tax.  I don’t particularly, partly because a real-world one (ie the sort many other countries actually have) just introduces a whole new set of distortions, but does anyone seriously believe that a capital gains tax –  whatever the case on “fairness” grounds –  is going to make any material difference to economywide productivity?  And if there is such a case, not even the Secretary to the Treasury advances it.

The Secretary, of course, has to keep on side with his masters, so we read this

I should also add that there are many things being done to address points I’ve just raised. The government has been working on education and training, welfare reform, tax reform and trade relations, to name just a few of the actions happening.

If the Secretary to the Treasury really believes that the goverment’s policy agenda –  at least as revealed to the public –  is going to make a helpful difference in reversing the decades of relative productivity decline, he must surely be the only such person.    But I guess that if he is going to speak in public, he has to say such stuff.

In the final paragraph of the speech there is material for both a brickbat and a rare bouquet.

The brickbat?

And the ‘we’ means everyone: businesses, workers and government seizing the opportunities offered by being part of, and closer to, the fastest-growing region in the world.

Which is simply nonsense of course,   New Zealand is incredibly remote from Asia, or from any other major part of the world economy.     We might be a little less far from some of Asia than we are from Europe or much of North America, but we aren’t even a little close to the major bits of Asia, let alone “part of” it (whatever that means).  When the Seceretary was at home in London he was closer to Mumbai or Bangalore or Delhi than he is in Wellington.  He was actually a little closer to Seoul or Shanghai too.

It is a fundamentally unserious “analysis”.

But there is a bouquet.   Early in his speech, the Secretary was rather downplaying the failure of New Zealand policy, and policy advisers, in observing that labour productivity is “now about 20 per cent below the OECD average”  –  an average considerably lowered by the entry to the OECD of a large group of emerging countries (especially in eastern and central Europe), all of whom throughout modern New Zealand history were considerably poorer and less productive than New Zealand.

But the Secretary ends

Recent research indicates that if New Zealand’s productivity caught up with the better-performing countries in the OECD, our incomes would be 50-60% higher.

It doesn’t take much “research” –  a quick download of an OECD table does the job.   Here is an extract of that table I did recently for a paper I’ve been writing on these issues.

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

If anything, a 50-60 per cent lift is an understatement: it would take a two-thirds lift in New Zealand productivity to match the average of this group of high-productivity countries.   And such a lift could be expected to be mirrored in commensurately higher living standards,

But it is great to see the stark magnitude of our failure –  and “failure” is the only honest word for it – as the note the Secretary ends on, even if there isn’t much sign the institution he leads has any serious answers.

And, to be entirely fair, the Governor of the Reserve Bank’s own speech last week makes the Secretary’s effort look like a fine piece of public sector analysis and communications by comparison.  I will write about the Governor’s extraordinary speech tomorrow.

 

Stakeholders, The Treasury, and economic failure

The Treasury runs a survey of external stakeholders every couple of years, and usually publishes the results on their website quite quickly.  Last year, the results weren’t very good, so they delayed publishing them.  In fact, it was only a few days ago, in response to an OIA request from Eric Crampton at the New Zealand Initiative, that they finally released them.

As Eric notes the results aren’t all bad, but

Among those people interacting with Treasury about its core business of economics, macroeconomics, and fiscal projection, satisfaction dropped from 70% in 2015 to 47% in 2017. The proportion of stakeholders viewing Treasury staff as well-informed dropped significantly, as did overall confidence that staff do a good job, that Treasury challenges thinking on critical issues, and that Treasury can offer insights.

Eric has been concerned for some time about The Treasury’s de-emphasis on core economics and finance skills in Treasury’s recruitment.  For example, apparently

Only four of fifteen hired by Treasury in the 2019 graduate recruitment round had at least Honours-level training in economics and finance.

And then there are specific survey results like this (the blue bits are those respondents who think Treasury is improving)

Tsy stakeholder 1

and in the same vein

tsy stakeholder 2

Not exactly positive results for an agency whose website blares at people that

“The Treasury is New Zealand’s lead advisor to the Government on economic and financial policy”

In some ways, I’m not sure what to make of the survey results.  After all, if one goes to the demographics at the back of the survey document, in the latest survey an even larger proportion than usual of the respondents are from elsewhere in the public sector itself (the blue bars are the latest survey).

tsy stakeholder 3

Consistent with that, an even larger proportion than usual of respondents live in Wellington (58 per cent, up from 50 per cent in the previous survey).

There are, I’m sure, still plenty of individual good people in the public sector (including in The Treasury), but if in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, what happens when the entire kingdom is blind.  The public sector more generally is greatly diminished in its policy capabilities –  the sorts of concern Victoria University’s Simon Chapple raised last week – and it isn’t clear to me why, for example, one would trust the Ministry for the Environment (of flakey analysis of plastic bags and emissions) or the Productivity Commission (this week’s Green Party cheerleading) to recognise a good, or bad, Treasury when they saw one.   Either that, or The Treasury is now so poorly performing that even the rest of the public sector recognises it –  and this survey was taken last year, before the “wellbeing Budget” silliness, championed by Treasury, got underway.

Much as I lament the reduction in the extent to which Treasury is hiring people with strong economics and finance skills, I think that is a symptom rather than the cause of the problem.  In fact, at the upper levels of the organisation there is less of a vacuum of economics skills now than there was a few years back.  At one stage, I could spot only one person with a solid economics record in their senior management group, but now there are at least three, all of whom I’ve worked with previously.

But there is still little useful analysis or advice on turning around decades of economic underperformance.  Instead, what economics skills are being deployed seem to be being used on exercises in distractions –  focusing on all manner of aspects of “wellbeing” (recent papers on Asian and Pacific New Zealander dimensions of “wellbeing” –  are we soon going to see ones on European New Zealanders’ wellbeing, or middle-aged people’s wellbeing? ), while avoiding the elephant in the room, decades of economic failure, for which The Treasury seems to have given up thinking hard about serious answers.

In putting this post together, I noticed that the Secretary to the Treasury had actually given a speech this week about productivity.  Glancing through it – I may come back to it in detail next week – it seems about as devoid of serious analysis and answers as most of the rest of Treasury’s work during the term of Makhlouf’s stewardship.   He notes that productivity matters  –  but blind Freddy knows that –  and there are lots of conventional rhetorical tropes, but he appears to have nothing to offer the government or citizens on what might make a real and sustained difference to New Zealand’s fortunes.  He can employ all the economists graduating from our universities and it won’t much any difference unless the Secretary –  or his replacement next year –  and his senior management are really interested in digging a lot deeper, and asking uncomfortable questions about why economic policy, with the best of intentions, has done so poorly for such a long time.  He is now, perhaps, somewhat constrained by the government’s commitment to the feel-good “wellbeing Budget”, but that is no excuse –  they were led down that track by a Treasury not doing its core job well, and with nothing substantive on offer for a new government had it been interested in seriously addressing the productivity growth failure.

The Treasury is New Zealand’s lead advisor to the Government on economic and financial policy.The Treasury is New Zealand’s lead advisor to the Government on e

The Treasury is New Zealand’s lead advisor to the Government on economic and financial policy.

Treasury and modish ideological agendas

You might have thought that there were real and important issues for The Treasury to be generating research and advice on.   Things like, for example, the decades-long productivity underperformance and the associated widening gap between New Zealand and Australia.  Or a housing and urban land market which renders what should be a basic –  the ability to buy one’s own house –  out of reach for so many New Zealanders.    Or even just preparing for the next recession.   Analytical capability is a scarce resource, and time used for one thing can’t be used for others.

But instead…..

In a post last night about various papers presented at the recent New Zealand Association of Economists conference, Eric Crampton alerted his readers last night to a contribution from Treasury’s chief economist (and Deputy Secretary) Tim Ng and one of his staff.

I did not attend Treasury’s session in which they noted Treasury’s diversity and inclusion programme which saw the scrubbing of the word “analysis” from Treasury’s recruitment ads as overly male-coded. Those interested in priorities at Treasury might wish to read the paper.

And so I did.   I’m not sure I could recommend anyone else do so, except to shed light on what seems to have become of a once-capable rigorous high-performing institution.   We’ll see later the background to the “overly male-coded” stuff, but –  in fairness to Treasury –  the first Treasury job advert I clicked on did still look for

  • Critical thinking, analytical ability and learning agility
  • An ability to drive discussion and provide critical analysis

[UPDATE: As Eric notes in a comment below, he has now amended his reference to “analysis”.]

There is no standard disclaimer on the paper, suggesting that we should take it as very much an institutional view (perhaps not surprisingly, when one of the authors is a member of the senior management of The Treasury).

The Ng/Morrissey paper has several sections.  The first relates to what the authors describe as “women’s (in)visibility within mainstream economic theoretical approaches, in particular, with respect to the conception of ‘rational man’.

A well-known trope in economics (and in critiques of economics and of economists) is that of the rational individual, one who is self-interested and seeks to maximise their own welfare, and who is consistently rational in the sense of diligently and correctly applying the calculus of constrained optimisation using complete information. Sometimes this actor is explicitly referred to as a man (especially in writings earlier than the mid-20th century – no doubt at least partly reflecting the linguistic conventions of the time). At other times, it has been argued that this is implicit in the way in which the scope of the subject is defined for the purposes of research or pedagogy.

In my years of formal economics study –  some decades ago now –  I don’t recall any aspect of economic analysis ever being framed in terms that focused on men, or male involvement in the market.  Since I focused mainly on macroeconomic and monetary areas, perhaps it was different in other sub-disciplines, but I doubt it.    And if standard simplifying assumptions –  as much about tractability as anything – about rationality are a common feature in models, those assumptions are not, actively or implicitly, focused on male perspectives.   They are a proposition that people will use the information they have, that they will pursue the best interests of themselves, their families, or other things they care about.  None of which should be terribly controversial.

But Ng and Morrissey seem to think something terribly important is missing.

We look at the degree to which mainstream theory adequately captures the value of the roles typically undertaken by women, especially unpaid care work, and examines how alternative models, such as those based on the mother/child relationship, could improve economic understanding and policy advice in contemporary developed economies.

They go on

There is a consensus from a number of notable authors that the new paradigm would have the mother / child relationship at its heart as this provides a more accurate depiction of fundamental human interaction.

Both Orloff (2009) and Strassman (1993) identified human’s dependency in infancy and old age, and often in between, as unchosen but present. By identifying dependency as natural they resist the negativity now associated with the term. Folbre (1991) considers how this negativity came about and suggests that women’s dependency was created as a fact through discourse, in the vocabulary used in the political and economic census, which tied non-earning women to earning or moneyed males.

Held (1990) makes her case by identifying the inherent dependency within the relationship between the mothering person and the child, and based on her observation of children as ‘necessarily dependent’, she puts this need at the centre of human interaction. Hartsock (1983) makes a similar argument in asserting mother/ infant as the prototypical human interaction. The importance of this relationship is discussed by Fineman (1995) who suggests the classic economic focus on the sexual relationship neuters the mother from her child.

I struggle to see how any this –  even if it has any substantive merit –  has any relevance to the sort of work, and advice, The Treasury should be providing.  But no doubt it goes down well with the Ministry for Women.

The authors do offer some thoughts on the potential relevance. They begin thus

The implications of the above for policy depend to some extent on the degree to which gender roles and preferences are socially constructed (rather than innate). If the latter, then policy settings (e.g. labour market regulation) have a role not only in recognising different gender roles and preferences, but also in possibly reinforcing or leaning against gender roles that contribute to gender inequality. A more comprehensive microeconomic and measurement approach that incorporates care work would support better analysis of policy settings to promote better gender equality over the longer run.

But even this is almost content-free.    Whether things are socially constructed (society having evolved the way it did for reasons that presumably had survival value) or innate, what role is it of The Treasury to be trying to impose its vision on how people organise their lives?    What, after all, does “gender equality” mean –  beyond individual equality of opportunity, before the law – if there are indeed innate differences (on average) between men and women?

It is a very heavy-handed feminist analysis

A number of feminist theorists have noted the value of paid employment for women. It has been suggested as being ‘constitutive of citizenship, community, and even personal identity’ (Schultz, 2000:1886). It has also been proposed to be a vehicle for participation in society and entitlement to social insurance rights (Lister, 2002:521). Of course paid work also has benefit to women in terms of poverty alleviation (Lawton and Thompson, 2013; Ben-Galim et al, 2014; Thompson and Ben-Galim, 2014).

Whereas I’m quite sure my grandmothers (and even my mother) would not have seen paid employment as a positive for them (or for their families).  Both would have seen it as constraining their ability to be heavily involved in church and community activities.  Nor, in today’s terms, is there any recognition of the fact that many families would prefer one parent (often the mother) to be able to stay at home fulltime with young children, but find that a near-impossible choice to make given the dysfunction that is the housing market.   (And, as a voluntary stay-at-home parent –  albeit male –  I don’t feel remotely disenfranchised or devalued as a result of that household choice.)

Four pages of the paper is devoted to a rather strained attempt to demonstrate the potential value of a gendered lens on macroeconomics  (Ng is a macroeconomist, indeed a former Reserve Bank colleague of mine).    Some charts show basically no difference between the cyclical behaviour of male and female unemployment rates, but the authors are undeterred

Of course, this descriptive commentary is just that – we are not attempting here to make strong empirical claims about gender differences relevant to the cyclical labour market behaviour. Instead the idea is to simply to illustrate, with a bit of introspection, the directions in which policy thinking – macroeconomic in this case – could be enriched if a gender lens is taken, exploring the possible links between behaviour within the household regarding participating in the labour market vs. other activities, and the possibly gendered impacts of macroeconomic phenomena on employment, which is an important contextual factor for within-household decisions. A public policy which aspires to be relevant to different groups in society, including different genders, and cognisant of the possibly different impacts of policy on those groups, could be strengthened by taking more of this kind of approach.

For all the blather –  and without denying that it can be interesting to understand differences in how different population groups (male and female, old and young, European and Maori, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and pagan, and so on) behave –  there is, it seems, nothing there.

Having failed to demonstrate a problem –  except perhaps an agenda to pursue –  the authors push on to look at the participation of women in the economics discipline.  This. it appears, is key (to what, one might ask?)

Education is our critical starting point. Those who study economics will later be those who practise economics, those who work in policy making, and those who undertake economic research. In order to ensure diverse perspectives are represented within that work, particularly with respect to gender and other distributional consequences of economic policy, it is important to have diversity within those who study economics. As this paper specifically focuses on gender, we will consider the position of women in economic education, in particular. Such a focus is supported by New Zealand’s international obligations through the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

When authors have to invoke CEDAW (twice in two paragraphs) and UN SDGs you know they are on substantively weak ground.

As the authors demonstrate, numbers of people studying economics have been in decline (not just in New Zealand).  That probably should be of concern, at least to agencies wanting to employ economists.   The authors present numbers suggesting that, at least at high school level, the drop has been particularly concentrated among girls (personally –  and I have both a son and a daughter doing high school economics at present –  that seems a wise choice on the girls’ part, so mind-numbing (and non-economic) is much of what is taught as economics at high school).

At an advanced tertiary level, it seems that perhaps a third of the economics students are female (in 2014, 31.4 per cent of economics doctorates were awarded to women).  Ng and Morrissey don’t like this at all.

What is our impressionistic conclusion about these patterns in participation in economics education by gender? There appears to be a “pipeline” problem with both genders, and some evidence that the proportion of women is falling – a double whammy in terms of the female economist pipeline in particular. Evidence is accumulating on a number of smoking guns relating to the way in which economics itself is taught and perceived, how leaders in the field are presented, and questions about the social construction of our identity as economists. It appears that a lot of work is needed on several fronts to improve the female pipeline into the profession.

But what, specifically, is the problem?  They don’t say?  Do they have a problem with the fact that 97.5 per cent of speech langugage pathologists are women or that 98.3 per cent of automotive service technicians and mechanics are male (US data for 2016)?   Can they, for example, point to areas where The Treasury’s analysis and advice has been deficient because female students have chosen –  and over decades now it has been pure choice –  not to study economics?   They make no effort to do so in the paper.  The consistent undertone appears to be that Treasury (and economists) make policy, when in fact politicians make the big choices (and, as it happens, in New Zealand three of our last five Prime Ministers have been female).

Ng and Morrissey go on to a new section of the paper

This section reports some experience with a programme to increase gender diversity in an economic and financial Ministry, the New Zealand Treasury.

They perhaps don’t help their case by suggesting that the current head of the International Monetary Fund is an economist, when in fact she is a lawyer and politician.

Treasury is certainly at the forefront of politically-correct blather

In the context of the now well-established literature on the benefits of diversity for the quality of decision making, as well as an obligation to be a good employer, the Treasury has for some time had an active and comprehensive diversity and inclusion (D&I) programme. The discussion in Section 2 about the (non-)role of women in mainstream economic models and approaches, and the consequences of the potential “blind spots” this might imply for policy development, reinforces the importance of gender diversity in a Ministry focused on economics and finance such as the Treasury. Meanwhile, the gender imbalance in the economist pipeline discussed in Section 3 underlines why the Treasury cannot be complacent about this issue.

In fact, this stuff carries over to the Treasury Annual Report

The Secretary to the Treasury co-leads the diversity and inclusion work stream in Better Public Services 2.0 and is a Diversity Champion for the Global Women’s Champions for Change initiative.

Too bad he isn’t a champion of analytical excellence, or of fixing New Zealand’s deep-seated economic problems (but then, not being a New Zealander, he doesn’t have much motivation to care).

Consistent with all this, they run quasi-quotas.  They would probably object to the numbers being called quotas, but when you report your target near the front of your Annual Report, it must put a great deal of pressure on individual managers to hire to the quota, not to ability to do the job.

tsy quotas

Franly, citizens should be more worried about the proportions of people who are top-notch economic and policy analysts, not their skin colour or sex.

But not, apparently, at Treasury.  Here is Ng and Morrissey again

As the data above suggest, a clear issue is the lack of women in senior leadership positions, and part of the response includes obligations on managers to have regular career discussions with all staff on a regular basis and for succession planning to more systematically address possible sources of disadvantage for women. Within-grade gender pay gaps are regularly examined and the target of eliminating any such gaps explicitly included as a criterion in annual remuneration reviews. The parental leave and flexible working policies are regularly reviewed to check for gendered impacts.

But still with no attempt whatever to suggest how any of this has adversely affected Treasury’s policy advice.    Surely that should be the most important test?

It is also clear that The Treasury is dead-keen on the flawed concept of unconscious bias (here for some problems with the Australian public service experience), and the associated training/indoctrination.

Application of emerging insights from studies of unconscious bias have been quite influential in this work, and point to certain interventions and relatively simple changes in HR processes that may help to address some of these biases. For this paper, we took the opportunity to explore in some detail the Treasury’s recent use of a tool, Kat Matfield’s Gender Decoder, which provides an easy way of assessing the potentially different impacts on prospective male and female applicants of language used in job advertisements. The Treasury now has about two years of experience with using this tool as a way of reducing unintended gendered impacts on pools of job applicants

What of this tool?

The Gender Decoder is available on the web at http://gender-decoder.katmatfield.com/. This tool is based on the findings of Gaucher et al. (2011) which provide evidence that certain words in job ads appeal differently to each gender, which may be a channel to exacerbate existing gender imbalances by profession, especially in traditionally male-dominated occupations. The theoretical mechanism is essentially that words connoting individualism and agency (“leadership”, “ambitious”, “challenging”), or that reflect stereotyped male traits, tend to appeal more to male applicants, while words connoting communalism or that reflect stereotyped female traits appeal more to female applicants.

They attempt some analysis of Treasury’s experience with the tool  (emphasis added)

To look at gendered language in Treasury job ads in general and the possible impact of the use of this tool, we sampled 40 job ads posted by male and female hiring managers, 20 before and 20 after the introduction of the use of the tool in March 2016 as a recommended practice in Treasury recruitment.

Looking at the pre-2016 ads, it is notable that male and female hiring managers tended to code their ads towards their own gender, with male managers in particular tending to use strongly “masculine” language. Post 2016, male managers showed roughly balanced gender coding in their ads, while female managers showed a dominance of masculine-coded ads. The preponderance of strong gender coding increased after the introduction of the use of the tool, the opposite to what one would expect if the tool alerted managers to unintended or unnecessary gendered language in ads and if the managers wanted to attract gender-balanced pools of applicants (as they are encouraged to do by Treasury policy).

So those were “quotas” again, in that final sentence?  I’d hope Treasury managers, male and female, wanted the best pool of applicants, based on ability to do the job, not based on some institutional gender quota approach (that seems to disregard the fact –  demonstrated earlier in the paper –  that at least among economists, there will only be half as many women as men in the overall pool to atract applications from).

The authors reflect

Faced with this somewhat surprising result…..we looked at the nature of the jobs advertised themselves, and this exercise suggested to us some limits to the effect that scrubbing job ads of unintended gendered language can have on the gender split of applicants, including for economics jobs. The masculine-coded ads tended to be for jobs in the analytical functions of the Treasury, and “analysis” is coded as a masculine word by the Gender Decoder. Treasury also routinely presents itself as “ambitious” and a “leader” – another masculine-coded word – in the area of economic policy. The feminine-coded ads tended to be for “support” and corporate jobs, with an emphasis on “collaboration” – both feminine-coded words.

Dear, oh dear.  Treasury management has for some time been using an HR tool that treats “analysis” as some nasty male word.    Perhaps this paragraph should lead Ng and his senior management colleagues to rethink, and to wonder whether zeal and ideological presuppositions have not been not been outstripping evidence and analysis?

The Ng and Morrissey paper concludes this way

This paper has reviewed the position of women in economic theory, economics education and economics practice. We argued that the role of women and care work is insufficiently incorporated into mainstream economic models and approaches, and illustrated how a more gender-sensitive approach could enrich a particularly gender-blind sub-discipline – macroeconomics. We then documented the lack of a deep pipeline of women entering the profession, and the gender imbalance at senior levels in our own economic Ministry.

and

We conclude that the position of women in all three areas of economics is unsatisfactory. While the quality of management and decision making in general has been shown to benefit from diversity in general, in the delivery of quality economic policy advice that benefits all New Zealanders, it is particularly important that a diversity of perspectives is represented.

As a profession we have lots of work to do.

Eric Crampton has previously challenged  as “wishful thinking” (or worse) the Secretary to the Treasury’s repeated insistence on the substantive benefits from “diversity” (population diversity, rather than diversity of view).  Other recent New Zealand research has challenged that proposition too.

The Treasury seems to have become committed to the modish view that how one analyses an issue depends on where one comes from (at least race and sex, although presumably their logic applies to age, religion, birthplace, and all the other trendy identity markers).  As an institution, they now have a huge distance to go, lots of work to do, to restore a reputation for analytical excellence.  Between their institutional weaknesses and the lack of demand for excellence from our politicians, it is no wonder our serious economic problems aren’t seriously addressed.  Pursuing modish causes, no doubt ones in favour with the government of the day, is easier I guess.

The former Minister of Finance, Bill English, had many weak points in his political record.  Among them was his decision a few years ago to support the reappointment of Gabs Makhlouf as Secretary to the Treasury (when, within the law, he’d have been quite within his rights to have asked SSC to find someone who might actually restore the quality of Treasury we once had).    We are the poorer for that degradation of what was once a strong, robust, and analytically-driven institution.  Politicians make policy, and a good Treasury can’t force them to make good policy, but a poor Treasury gives them all the excuses they need to avoid tackling the real issues (while revelling in the feel-good content-lite nature of the coming Wellbeing Budget).

In the meantime, one has to wonder about the opportunity cost of the Ng/Morrissey paper.  Time spent writing it, is (taxpayers’) time that could have been used for tackling some real issues.

 

 

 

Scattered thoughts on Budget 2018

The possible new fiscal institution first, and them some comments on some of the numbers.

It was interesting to see the joint statement from James Shaw and Grant Robertson that the government is looking to move ahead with some sort of independent fiscal institution.   This had been a Greens cause more than a Labour one –  former leader Metiria Turei had openly called for a new body –  and although the pledge had formed part of the pre-election Budget Responsibility Rules, I’d been beginning to wonder whether the government would follow through.  After all, Treasury has never been keen on a potential alternative source of fiscal advice/analysis, even though the independent review of their fiscal advice and analysis a few years ago by the former head of the IMF Fiscal Affairs Department had been positive on the idea that New Zealand establish a Fiscal Council (and the OECD had also recommended it).

There were few specifics in yesterday’s statement

Public consultation will be launched in August on establishing an independent body to better inform public debate in our democracy, Associate Finance Minister James Shaw announced today.

“We are pleased to take forward a Green Party idea developed before the last election to see a body formed which could provide all political parties with independent, non-partisan costings on their policies,” says James Shaw.

“That way we can reduce political point-scoring and attempts to create unreasonable doubt about a party’s policy figures. That will mean better debate about the ideas being put forward.

“We are proposing a new institution independent of Ministers that would provide the public with an assessment of government forecasts and cost political parties’ policies,” says Grant Robertson.

“This independent fiscal institution (IFI) would crunch the numbers on political parties’ election policies in a credible and consistent way,” says James Shaw.

Indeed, the statement is a reminder that there are two very different roles being discussed here:

  • costing political parties’ election promises, and
  • monitoring and assessing government (Treasury surely?) fiscal forecasts, and perhaps government fiscal strategy.

As I’ve written previously, I am generally positive on the second of those roles, but am sceptical of the former.  Notwithstanding last year’s debates about “fiscal holes”, I don’t see a gap in the market (after all, surely “pointscoring” is part of the point of election campaigns?), and I suspect any such costings office would tend to become an additional research service for small parties (the Australian office seems to have been used mainly by the Greens), and not much used either by the main parties (with more resources, including in the form of supporters’ own expertise), or by any right-wing parties (given the social democratic leanings of those likely to be doing this sort of work, probably on rotation or secondment from The Treasury).

Of the second leg, these were some of my earlier comments

A Fiscal Council seems more likely to add value if it is positioned (normally) at one remove from the detailed forecasting business, offering advice and analysis on the fiscal rules themselves (design and implementation) and how best to think about the appropriate fiscal policy rules.  The Council might also, for example, be able to provide some useful advice on what material might usefully be included in the PREFU  (before the election, I noted that routine publication of a baseline scenario that projected expenditure using the inflation and population pressures used in the Treasury economic forecasts would be a helpful step forward).

There is unlikely to be a simple-to-replicate off-the-shelf model that can quickly be adopted here, and some work will be needed on devising a cost-effective sustainable model, relevant to New Zealand’s specific circumstances.  That is partly about the details of the legislation (mandate, resourcing etc), but also partly about identifying the right sort of mix of people –  some mix of specific professional expertise, an independent cast of mind, communications skills, and so on.  A useful Fiscal Council won’t be constantly disagreeing with Treasury or the Minister of Finance (but won’t be afraid to do so when required), but will be bringing different perspectives to bear on the issues, to inform a better quality independent debate on fiscal issues.

I hope to offer some more-detailed thoughts when the public consultation phase of the policy development occurs.  In the meantime, I’d continue to urge ministers (and Treasury) to think about broadening the ambit of any new council, to include external monitoring analysis of monetary policy and perhaps the other responsibilities of the Reserve Bank.

…it wouldn’t be about second-guessing individual OCR decisions or specific sets of forecasts, but offering perspectives on the framework and rules, and some periodic ex-post assessment.    In a small country, it would also have the appeal of offering some critical mass to any new Council.

What of this year’s numbers?

I’m not someone who champions big government.  In fact, I think we could do the things the state should be doing, and do them well –  better than they are being done now – with a smaller share of GDP devoted to government spending.

But as outside observer of left-wing politics in government, I continue to find charts like this a bit surprising.

core crown expensese 2018 budget

Not only is government spending over the next four fiscal years planned/projected to be a smaller share of GDP than in the last four years under the previous government, but that government spending share averages less than in every single year of the Clark/Cullen government.   In the interim, nothing has been done to raise the NZS eligibility age, so that that particular fiscal outlay is becoming more burdensome every year.  And all the campaign rhetoric –  and actually the rhetoric in government –  is about rebuilds, past underfunding etc etc.   Something doesn’t seem to add up.  I suspect, as I’ve argued previously, that the aggregate spending line can’t, and won’t, be held over the next few years.

And you will recall that the Labour-Greens pledge around government spending was (as it first appeared last May)

4. The Government will take a prudent approach to ensure expenditure is phased, controlled, and directed to maximise its benefits. The Government will maintain its expenditure to within the recent historical range of spending to GDP ratio.

During the global financial crisis Core Crown spending rose to 34% of GDP. However, for the last 20 years, Core Crown spending has been around 30% of GDP and we will manage our expenditure carefully to continue this trend.

In the separate release on the rules yesterday, that second paragraph now reads

Core Crown spending has averaged around 30% of GDP for the past 20 years. The Treasury forecasts show we are staying below this – peaking at 28.5% of GDP in 2018/19.

It is as if 30 per cent has become a ceiling –  staying below it a badge of honour for the government –  rather than something to fluctuate around.

Perhaps the Minister would defend himself by noting that over the forecast period the economy is running at capacity, and he needs to allow for the inevitable next recession at some point.   But with planned spending averaging 28.5 per cent of forecast GDP, it would take an unexpected 8 per cent fall in nominal GDP (relative to the current forecast path), with no change at all in government spending (say, wage settlements being lower etc) for government spending to equal 31 per cent of GDP, even in a single year in the depths of such a recession.  And even 31 per cent wouldn’t be out of the recent historical range of the spending to GDP ratio.   Again, relative to the political rhetoric, something doesn’t compute.

There are also some puzzling things in the Treasury macro forecasts –  which are Treasury’s responsibility, not that of the Minister of Finance.    Here is the difference in the interest rate projections of the Reserve Bank and The Treasury.  The Bank forecasts the OCR directly, while The Treasury forecasts the 90 day bill rate, but you can easily see the difference.

rb and tsy int rates

Only last week, the new Governor (over)confidently told us that official interest rates “will” remain on hold for some time to come.  The Treasury clearly doesn’t believe him, reckoning that by this time next year we’ll already have had 50 to 75 basis points on OCR increases, with lots more increases in the following two years.

Even though I think the Governor was expressing himself too strongly, I just don’t believe the Treasury numbers at all.    They imply a lot of pent-up inflation pressures building up now that can only be nipped in the bud if the Bank gets on with the job and tightens policy.    And yet, on Treasury’s own numbers, the output gap has increased from around -1.5 per cent of GDP (for several years) to around zero now, and there has been only a very modest increase in core inflation.  It is hard to see how the quite small projected increase in capacity pressures will now finally get core inflation back to 2 per cent –  requiring quite a lift in the inflation rate from here –  and how those pressures are likely to appear if people really thought such a significant tightening of the OCR was in prospect.   As it is, on these Treasury numbers, it is another three years until inflation gts back to 2 per cent.  That is even slower than in the Reserve Bank projections.

Also a bit sobering were the Treasury export forecasts.  From time to time the government talks –  as its predecessor did – about lifting exports (and imports presumably) as part of a successful reorientation of the economy.  Treasury clearly doesn’t believe that any such reorientation is underway.

exports to gdp budget 2018

Just some more of the same dismal picture.  But I guess that is what one would expect when the two parties just keep on with much the same policies that got us where we are today, with the economy less open (as measured by trade shares) than it was averaging 25 years ago).

I mentioned earlier the uncertain timing of the next recession.  If the Treasury projections come to pass we’ll have gone 12 years (since the 2010 double-dip recession) without a recession.  That is possible, but it probably isn’t an outcome people should be planning on.  I noticed last night this chart from a recent survey of US fund managers.

next recession

Quite possibly, like economists, fund managers picked six of the last three recessions.  Nonetheless, it is a salutary reminder of where things can go wrong.  For example:

  • The Fed could end up overtightening (often a contributor to past downturns),
  • Emerging market stresses (eg Turkey and Argentina) could foreshadow something more widespreads,
  • Economic data in the euro-area seems to be weakening, and the likely new Italian government doesn’t look like a force to increase confidence and resilience in the euro,
  • and of the course there are risks around China, and in the Middle East –  trade wars and other aspects of geopolitics.

Nearer to home, some straws in the wind are also starting to pile up.

I don’t do medium-term economic forecasts –  nor does any wise person – but with the terms of trade assumed to hold at near-record highs, there is a sense that the macro picture the government is using, and selling, is a little too good to last.  In that respect –  but probably only –  it is eerily reminiscent of the start of 2008 when The Treasury revised its advice and confirmed to the then government of the day that it thought the higher revenue levels were likely to be permanent. Little did they realise…….

Of course, our government debt levels are very low –  net debt is only 7.3 per cent of GDP –  so these risks aren’t some sort of existential threat (although any new global downturn will greatly exacerbate fiscal problems elsewhere, and further constrain policy freedom of action and limit the ability of the advanced world to bounce back quickly).  But our authorities do need to be more actively planning for the next downturn: it will come, and when it does it appears that the government and the Reserve Bank have not yet done anything much to assure that they have anything the freedom of monetary policy action we can usually count on.  (Perhaps instead of offering his unsolicited thoughts on all and sundry political issues, the Governor could substantively address that issue, which is core to his remit.)

 

 

New Zealanders leaving Auckland

Last month The Treasury published some new research aimed at providing better information on the population changes in each territorial local authority (TLA) between censuses.   At present we only have a census every five years –  and in some quarters there seems to be a push to reduce that frequency – and subnational population estimates between censuses have often been pretty poor, only to be updated and revised when the next census results finally appear.  At present, the published subnational population numbers are anchored to the 2013 Census, adjusted for estimates of the overseas net migration flow and data on  births and deaths.  In New Zealand we don’t have to tell some specific government agency when we move house or city.

Except that, as The Treasury observes, in practice we often do end up telling some government agency (or government-funded agency) or other –  in fact, are coerced to do so –  and the government has collated all that data in a single (anonymised) database.   That opens up enormous possibilities to use that data to, for example, update subnational population estimates in a way likely to be more accurate (albeit not very timely).   You might worry, as I do, about governments getting their hands on all that data combined, by some mix of coercion and seduction (eg have the slightest accident and you get into the ACC system) and worry that it might be used for ill as much as for good.  But, like it or not, the data are there and The Treasury is using them.

This chart from their paper gives you the picture of the data they are using

tsy popn

But my interest is less in the details of how they calculate their estimates, as in some of the bottom line results, and particularly those around estimated internal migration.

There are some interesting snippets.  The results suggests that New Zealanders’ rates of internal migration (one TLA to another) have been pretty stable, but that of immigrants has increased quite a lot.  The author offers no ideas about why that might have been (and I don’t have any to suggest either).

tsy popn 2 There is a fascinating picture of Christchurch following the earthquakes, including the continuing losses in recent years to neighbouring Selwyn and Waimakariri.

tsy popn 3

And then there is Auckland

tsy popn 4

There was a slight move into Auckland from elsewhere in New Zealand (mostly from Christchurch, see previous chart) in 2011, but otherwise the net flow of New Zealanders has been away from Auckland.  In fact, in the final year of the chart, the net outflow of New Zealanders (this is a NZ-born measure) was larger than the natural increase, so that the entire increase in Auckland’s population is (estimated to have been) due to international migration.

Readers with long memories may recall that I touched on the outflow of New Zealanders (as captured in Census data) in an earlier post.

This was the picture from the five years from 2008 to the 2013 Census.
internal migration 08 to 13As I observed then, we didn’t know what had happened since 2013.   Perhaps things had turned around?    But the new Treasury estimates suggest that if anything the outflow – still modest each year – may have accelerated.

We have the data going further back. Here is the extract from the earlier post.

SNZ has compiled this data back as far as the 1986 to 1991 five-yearly period. The last five yearly period in which Auckland experienced a net inflow of people from elsewhere in the country was from 1991 to 1996.

Here is chart which covers the estimated net internal migration to each region for the period 1986 to 2013 (with the two years 2006 to 2008 missing, because they weren’t captured by any of the censuses).

internal migration 86 to 13.png

 

None of this should be very surprising.   After all:

  • Auckland house prices have become impossibly high,
  • Traffic congestion problems, if temporarily relieved now by Waterview, seem continually pressing, and
  • The gap between Auckland incomes and those in the rest of the country, never large, has been narrowing.

But it must be an inconvenient truth for boosters of the Auckland story, including bureaucrats in MBIE, the Secretary to the Treasury, assorted past and present ministers (recall John Key on “quality problems”).  The people who know Auckland best  –  the opportunities for themselves and their families –  are, at the margin, leaving the place.   People in the rest of New Zealand aren’t (net) flocking to the big city.   It simply doesn’t seem to offer them better opportunities than staying where they are (or going to Australia).

The latest issue of the London Review of Books turned up in the mail yesterday.   In one of the reviews –  of a new book by Richard Florida –  I found this

The new urban inequality has two distinct and related aspects. First, superstar cities have moved ahead of the nations they’re found in.  The trend is clear in the US, where cities like New York have become richer relative to the country as a whole. But it is most pronounced in the UK.  In the 1970s and 1980s, London’s GDP per head was around one and a quarter times that of the UK as a whole.  Today it’s one and three-quarters.

It isn’t just London or New York.   I’ve shown previously a chart looking at GDP per capita in EU countries, looking at the ratio over time of that in the biggest city relative to GDP per capita for the country as a whole.  Over this century there has been a clear upward trend.

As for Auckland, in 2000 GDP per head in Auckland was 15 per cent higher than for the country as a whole, but by last year it was only 9 per cent higher.   I’ve shown previously (a couple of years ago) this chart of how small the New Zealand gap is between GDP per capita in the biggest city and that for the country as a whole, by comparison with many other advanced countries.

gdp pc cross EU city margins

There are, perhaps, some good dimensions to the New Zealand story.   We don’t have whole swathes of the country being left behind as the metropolis powers ahead.  On the other hand, the metropolis isn’t powering ahead at all –  just getting more and more people, in a city which is underperforming a country with weak (almost non-existent in recent years) productivity growth.

It is well past time for a rethink, and for our politicians and officials to start focusing on the specifics of the New Zealand experience.   In terms of economic success, Auckland bears not the slightest resemblance to London or New York (or Paris, or perhaps even Bratislava).   And yet the growth strategy (perhaps flattering it to use the term “strategy”) has seemed to rest almost entirely on a wishful belief that if only we tried really hard, and poured more and more people into Auckland, it just might be.  But one of the lessons of economic geography is that location matters.  Ours –  Auckland’s –  is exceeedingly unpropitious.

That LRB review I mentioned earlier notes that trends in recent decades have turned out to be very good for “established global cities in particular”, in ways that few anticipated.  That particular discussion ends thus

The business districts of San Francisco, New York, and London are ludicrously prodigious. The Borough of Westminster produces as much wealth as all of Wales.

I can’t vouch for that final statistic, but it does leave one thinking that it is more likely that Auckland is a Cardiff or (moving north) Glasgow, than that it is a coming London or New York.

Inadequate Treasury advice

I wrote about the new –  and last ever –  Policy Targets Agreement when it was released by the incoming Governor and the Minister of Finance last week.  Mostly the changes were pretty small, and in some cases you had to wonder why they bothered (since the PTA system itself is to be scrapped when the planned amendments to the Reserve Bank Act are passsed later this year).

I lodged Official Information Act requests with the Reserve Bank and Treasury for background papers relevant to the new PTA.  I wasn’t very optimistic about what I might get from the Reserve Bank –  both because of a culture of secrecy, and because the incoming Governor probably wasn’t covered by the Official Information Act when he was negotiating this major instrument of public policy.   But The Treasury kindly pointed out that they had already pro-actively (if not very visibly) released several papers, including Treasury’s own advice to the Minister of Finance, and two Cabinet papers.

(I would link to those papers, but Treasury has been upgrading its website this week and the link they provided me with no longer works.  If I manage to trace one that does work I will update this.)  [UPDATE 9/4.   Here is the new link to those papers,]

Those papers help answer the question about why they bothered with the small changes.  The Treasury advice to the Minister of Finance was dated 7 February, well before Treasury had formulated its advice on Stage 1 of the Reserve Bank Act review, and before the Independent Expert Advisory Panel had reported. In other words, well before it was decided that PTAs would soon be done away with altogether.  Indeed, there are suggestions in the paper that most of the relevant work had been done 18 months ago –  they say they consulted “a number of economists and market participants over 2016” –  when they thought the Minister would be replacing Graeme Wheeler early last year (rather than falling back on the unlawful “acting Governor” route to deal with the election period).  Interestingly,  the advice suggests Treasury favoured, on balance, increasing the focus on the 2 per cent target midpoint and de-emphasising the 1 to 3 per cent target range, but the Minister appears to have rejected that option.

There are two Cabinet papers among the material that was released.  One was from 19 February, before the Minister had engaged with the Governor-designate on the possible wording of the PTA.  In that short document the Minister outlines for his colleagues the draft PTA he would be suggesting to Adrian Orr.  The other was from 19 March, advising his colleagues of the text he had agreed with Orr.

The differences in the two texts are small, but in my view the changes represent improvements relative to the Minister’s draft (for example, keeping the political waffle about climate change, inclusive economies etc, clear of the material dealing with the Reserve Bank’s own responsibilities).  Presumably Orr would have consulted senior Reserve Bank staff, but on the basis of what has been released so far, we don’t know.

The documents suggest that The Treasury has played the lead (official) role in reshaping the Policy Targets Agreement (the Treasury advice to the Minister refers to them having consulted the Bank, but there is no suggestion that the Bank staff had necessarily agreed with the recommendations, or any suggestion of a separate Reserve Bank paper).  In a way, the lead role for The Treasury makes sense –  macroeconomic policy parameters should be set primarily by the Minister, not the Governor-designate.  On the other hand, The Treasury will typically not have the degree of expertise, or depth, in issues around monetary policy that the Reserve Bank should have.   I welcome the Minister’s announcement that in future, when the Minister directly sets the operational goal for monetary policy, he will be required to do so after having regard to the advice (publicly disclosed) of both the Reserve Bank and The Treasury.

My main prompt for this post, however, was one element of The Treasury advice which seriously concerned me, and represented a grossly inadequate treatment of an important issue.

In Treasury’s advice to the Minister, they have an appendix dealing with a couple of aspects of the Policy Targets Agreement where they didn’t propose change.  The one I’m interested in was the question of the level of the inflation target itself.

Treasury note that “there have been a number of arguments advanced by commentators over recent years in favour of either a higher or lower inflation target”.

Treasury notes, correctly, that

The main argument in favour of increasing inflation targets is in order to ensure that central banks will have enough scope to lower interest rates in the face of a large contractionary economic shock that may result in monetary policy reaching the effective lower bound of [nominal] interest rates

Amazingly, this issue is dismissed in a mere two sentences.  As they note

a higher inflation target would lead to higher costs of inflation at all times, whereas the risks of a lower bound event occur infrequently

But instead of moving on to offer some numerical analysis, or even plausible scenarios, the government’s principal economic advisers simply observe that

Given this, the costs of a higher inflation target may outweigh the benefits

Or may not. But Treasury doesn’t seem to know, and doesn’t offer the Minister (or us) any substantive analysis.

Here is one scenario.  Recessions seem to come round about once a decade, and in typical recessions (admittedly a small sample) the Reserve Bank has needed to cut interest rates by around 500 basis points.  If it can only cut interest rates by, say, 250 basis points, and that difference meant even just 2 per cent additional lost output (eg the unemployment rate one percentage point higher than otherwise for two years, the annual costs of a higher –  but still low –  inflation rate would have to be quite large, for the costs of a higher target to outweigh the benefits.  Perhaps my scenario is wrong, but Treasury doesn’t offer one at all.

Treasury devotes more space to the possibility of lowering the inflation target.  They aren’t keen on that –  some of their arguments are fine, others flawed at best –  but even then they seem determined to play down the near-zero effective lower bound on nominal interest rates, noting that (emphasis added)

a lower inflation target marginally increases the risk that the ELB [effective lower bound] may be reached, thereby providing monetary policy marginally less space to respond to shocks

Those who have sometimes called for cutting the target probably have in mind cutting the target midpoint from 2 per cent to 1 per cent (where it was in the early days of inflation targeting).    When interest rates are 8 per cent, that might make only a marginal difference to the chances of the lower bound being reached –  indeed, that was standard Reserve Bank advice in years gone by, when the lower bound was treated as a curiosity of little or no relevance to New Zealand.   But when the OCR is at 1.75 per cent (and the central bank thinks the output gap and unemployment gaps are near zero) a 1 percentage point cut in the inflation target would hugely reduce the effective monetary policy space for dealing with serious adverse shocks.  The floor would be hit with relatively minor adverse shocks.

And they conclude this way

New Zealand’s inflation target has been changed a number of times in the past and frequent changes to the level of the target could undermine the credibility of the regime.

There were two changes in the level of the target inside six years, which was unfortunate.  But the most recent of those changes was 16 years ago.  At that time, the idea of running out of monetary policy room in New Zealand was little more than a theoretical possibility.  Now it seems quite likely whenever the next recession happens here, and has already happened to numerous other advanced countries.

As I hope readers recognise by now, I regard an increase in the inflation target as an undesirable outcome, a second-best option.  I would rather the authorities (Reserve Bank, Treasury, and the Minister of Finance) treated as a matter of urgency removing directly –  and with preannounced certainty and credibility –  the extent to which the near-zero lower bound on nominal interest rates bites, by reducing or removing the incentives in the face of negative interest rates for people (large holders of financial assets, rather than transactions balances) to shift to holding physical cash.   Even just ensuring that the Reserve Bank gets inflation up to around 2 per cent –  rather than the 1.4 per cent (core) inflation has averaged for the last five years –  would help.

But there is nothing about any of this in The Treasury’s advice on the main instrument of New Zealand macroeconomic policy.  It seems extraordinarily inadequate.  Perhaps they have provided some other, more in-depth, advice on these sorts of issues –  in which case it might be good to proactively release that –  but there is no hint of, or allusion to, any deeper thinking in the PTA advice.   “Wellbeing” is all the (content-lite) rage at The Treasury these days.  I’m not a fan, but perhaps they should reflect that one of the biggest things policymakers can do to avoid adverse hits to “wellbeing” is to avoid unnecessarily severe or protracted recessions (and spells of unemployment).     Indifference on this score is all the more inexcusable when the limitations arise wholly and solely from policymaker/legislator choices –  whether around the level of the inflation target or the system of physical currency issues (and the prohibitions on innovation in that sector).  Ordinary New Zealanders –  not Treasury officials –  risk having to live with the consequences of their malign apparent indifference.

As it happens, a reader last night sent me a link to a couple of new pieces on exactly these sorts of issues.  The first was the (brilliantly-titled) “Crisis, Rinse, Repeat” column by Berkeley economist and economic historian Brad Delong.  He concludes

It has now been 11 years since the start of the last crisis, and it is only a matter of time before we experience another one – as has been the rule for modern capitalist economies since at least 1825. When that happens, will we have the monetary- and fiscal-policy space to address it in such a way as to prevent long-term output shortfalls? The current political environment does not inspire much hope.

And his column took me on to recent work by his colleagues David and Christina Romer, and in particular to a recently-published lecture on macroeconomic policy and the aftermath of financial crises.

The authors focus on financial crises (and I have a few questions about which events are included and which are not), rather than recessions more generally, but it isn’t obvious to me why their results wouldn’t generalise.   Here is their abstract.

Analysis based on a new measure of financial distress for 24 advanced economies in the postwar period shows substantial variation in the aftermath of financial crises. This paper examines the role that macroeconomic policy plays in explaining this variation. We find that the degree of monetary and fiscal policy space prior to financial distress—that is, whether the policy interest rate is above the zero lower bound and whether the debt-to-GDP ratio is relatively low—greatly affects the aftermath of crises. The decline in output following a crisis is less than 1% when a country possesses both types of policy space, but almost 10% when it has neither. The difference is highly statistically significant and robust to the measures of policy space and the sample. We also consider the mechanisms by which policy space matters. We find that monetary and fiscal policy are used more aggressively when policy space is ample. Financial distress itself is also less persistent when there is policy space. The findings may have implications for policy during both normal times and periods of acute financial distress.

These are really huge differences.  And they reflect a combination (a) a substantive lack of capacity, and (b) a reluctance to use aggressively what capacity still exists when the bottom of the barrel is getting close.

Here is the chart they use for monetary policy space (and lack thereof).

romer chart

(the dotted lines are confidence bands)

The Romers offer some thoughts on the policy implications, including

Very low inflation means that nominal interest rates tend to be low, so monetary policy space is inherently limited. A somewhat higher target rate of inflation might actually be the more prudent course of action if policymakers want to be able to reduce interest rates when needed.

Our finding that policy space matters substantially through the degree to which policy is used during crises also implies difficult decisions. For example, it is not enough to have ample fiscal space at the start of a crisis. For the space to be useful in combating the crisis, policymakers have to actually enact aggressive fiscal expansion. However, countercyclical fiscal policy has become so politically controversial that policymakers might refuse to use it the next time a country faces a crisis.

What of New Zealand (included in their empirical sample)?      We have plenty of “fiscal space” –  both gross and net debt are pretty low (around the lower quartile of OECD countries).  In a technical sense that might substitute to some extent for a lack of monetary policy capacity (if a recession hit today, we start with an OCR at 1.75 per cent, while most countries were at 5 per cent or more going into the last recession).    But fiscal deficits blow out quite quickly in recessions anyway –  as the automatic stabilisers do their work –  and can anyone honestly assure New Zealanders that governments would be willing to engage in much larger than usual, more sustained than usual, active fiscal stimulus if a new and serious recession hits at some stage?  Of course they can’t.  Politicians can’t precommit (and even Treasury can’t precommit what its advice would be) and the political constraints on a willingness to actively choose to take on large deficits far into the future –  perhaps on projects of questionable merit –  would almost certainly be quite real (as they were in so many countries after 2008).  So we are better placed than some because of the fiscal capacity –  itself less than it was here in 2008 –  but we really should be taking steps to re-establish effective monetary policy capacity.  That might involve (my preference) dealing directly with the lower bound, it might involve changing the inflation target, it might involve putting more pressure on the Bank to get inflation up to 2 per cent, or it might even involve asking questions about whether inflation targeting (as distinct from levels targeting) offers more crisis resilience (senior US monetary policymakers have openly been discussing some of those latter issues).

There is no sign, for now, that The Treasury is taking the issue at all seriously, and there has been no sign –  in speeches, or Statements of Intent –  that the Reserve Bank has been doing so.  That needs to change.   Perhaps it is a good opportunity for the new Governor.  But the Minister –  rightly focused on employment issues –  should really be taking the lead, and insisting on getting better quality analysis and advice, engaging with the real risks and offering practical solutions, than what was on offer when the PTA was being reviewed.

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

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

This was a news report just a few week ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The well-being index

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

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

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

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

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