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.


Two BIMs and a bureaucrat

As I noted last week, government departments’ (and agencies’) briefings to incoming ministers have mostly become a bit of a joke: mostly devoid of any substance, typically specifically tailored to the preferences of the particular incoming government (ie written/finalised after the shape of the new government is clear), and mostly not much more than process pieces.  If one is interested in the actual substantive advice –  the sort of things the Lange government intended to make available when they began publishing BIMs in the mid 1980s –  citizens need to fall back on the Official Information Act, with all its limitations.

There are exceptions –  I wrote the other day about some substance in the Reserve Bank’s BIM.   And even on the little that is released, sometimes tantalising hints sneak through.  The intelligence services, for example, left unredacted a suggestion that governments might need to be concerned about the influence activities in New Zealand of foreign governments –  something neither the current Prime Minister nor her predecessor have been willing to take seriously or address openly.

Of the other economic functions, neither the Treasury nor the Immigration BIMs say much.  But sometimes there is quite a bit even in a few words.  Take immigration for example.    It was only a few years ago that MBIE was telling Ministers of Immigration (and the public) that immigration was a “critical economic enabler” –  a potential catalyst to transform New Zealand’s dismal productivity performance.   There isn’t much in this year’s Immigration portfolio BIM –  mostly process again –  but my eye lit on this paragraph

New Zealand’s immigration system enables migrants to visit, work, study, invest, and live in New Zealand. Economically, it contributes to filling skill shortages, encouraging investment, enabling and supporting innovation and growing export markets. Immigration has contributed to New Zealand’s strong overall GDP growth in recent years largely through its contribution to population growth. However, the evidence suggests that the contribution of immigration to per capita growth and productivity is likely to be relatively modest.

The theory –  dodgy bits like “filling skill shortages” and the more plausible bits –  is there in the first half of the paragraph.  But by the end of the paragraph, even MBIE has to concede that there isn’t likely to be much boost to per capita income or productivity at all –  the effects are “likely to be relatively modest”.  It is hard to avoid that sort of conclusion –  looking specifically at the New Zealand experience –  when (to take MBIE’s list from the second sentence) “skill shortages” have been a story told in New Zealand for 150 years, business investment has been weak by OECD standards for decades, firms haven’t regarded it as particularly attractive to invest heavily in innovation (again by world standards), and the export share of GDP is now at its lowest since 1976.  Still, it is good to see reality slowing dawning on MBIE.  On my telling, they are still too optimistic, but even on their telling when such a large scale policy intervention seems to produce such modest economic results it might be time for a rethink.

And what about the BIMs prepared by Treasury?   There isn’t much in the main Finance document (lots of process stuff, and plenty of talk of diversity and wellbeing and none on productivity).  There is an appendix specifically aimed to address what Treasury understand to be the new Minister’s priorities, but not much about Treasury’s own view of what needs to be done, or the pressing problems.    If anything, reading Gabs Makhlouf’s covering letter to Grant Robertson one might conclude that Treasury didn’t think there was much to worry about at all.

You are taking up your role at a time when New Zealand’s economy is in a relatively strong position.  There is solid forecast growth, complemented by fiscal surpluses and a strong debt position.  And while international markets still present a number of risks and uncertainties, overall the global economy –  as reflected in the IMF’s recent outlook –  presents opportunities for New Zealand to seize, in particular with Asia’s ongoing growth.

Presumably the Secretary didn’t think it worth emphasising five years of no productivity growth, seventy years of pretty weak productivity growth, shrinking exports as a share of GDP, sky-high house/land prices, pretty weak business investment and so on.  Or even the fact that notwithstanding “Asia’s ongoing growth” –  a story now for more than forty years –  nothing has looked like turning around New Zealand’s continuing gradual economic decline.    And perhaps when you are a temporary immigrant yourself –  as Makhlouf presumably is –  the cumulative (net) loss of a million New Zealanders isn’t something that concerns you?

In their BIM Treasury proudly asserts that “We are the Government’s lead economic and financial adviser”.  Perhaps they hold that formal office, but it is hard to be optimistic about the content of what they might be offering the government.

But Treasury also had some other BIMs for other portfolios they have responsibilities for.  The one I noticed was the Infrastructure one.    Buried in the middle of that document was this observation

Auckland’s ability to absorb growth has been reached. Environmental, housing and transport indicators all reflect a city under increasing pressure. Traditionally, Auckland has been more productive than other regions of New Zealand but, on a per capita basis, this productivity premium has been shrinking over time. Auckland is not performing as well as expected for its size and in comparison to other primary cities around the world.  There are opportunities to increase this productivity but only if supply constraints, especially transport and housing, are resolved.

That key middle sentence –  no hint of which appears in the main Treasury BIM –  could easily have been lifted from one of my various posts on similar lines.    They could have illustrated the point with a chart like this.

akld failure


Appearing in the standalone Infrastructure BIM, Treasury appear to want to blame these poor outcomes largely on infrastructure gaps –  a conclusion which I think is flawed –  but I’m encouraged to see a recognition of the problem in official advice to the Minister of Finance.   It is all a far cry from the rather lightweight celebratory speech Gabs Makhlouf was giving about Auckland’s economy only 18 months ago, which I summed up this way

[it] might all sound fine,  until one starts to look for the evidence.  And there simply isn’t any.  Perhaps 25 years ago it was a plausible hypothesis for how things might work out if only we adopted the sort of policies that have been pursued. But after 25 years surely the Secretary to the Treasury can’t get away with simply repeating the rhetoric, offering no evidence, confronting no contrary indicators, all simply with the caveat that in “the long run” things will be fine and prosperous.  How many more generations does Makhouf think we should wait to see his preferred policies producing this “more prosperous New Zealand in the long run”?

If the Secretary to the Treasury was going to address the economic issues around Auckland, one might have hoped there would be at least passing reference to:

  • New Zealand’s continuing relative economic decline, despite the rapid growth in our largest city,
  • Auckland’s 15 year long relative decline (in GDP per capita), relative to the rest of New Zealand,
  • The contrast between that experience, and the typical experience abroad in which big city GDP per capita has been rising relative to that in the rest of the respective countries,
  • The failure of exports to increase as a share of GDP for 25 years,
  • The fact that few or any major export industries I’m aware of our centred in Auckland (the exception is probably the subsidized export education sector) –  and by “centred” I don’t mean where the corporate head office is, but where the centre of relevant economic activity is.

There is nothing of economic substance on immigration in the main Treasury BIM this year, but perhaps over the next few years Treasury could start thinking harder about whether it really makes sense to be using policy to bring ever more people to one of the most remote corners on earth, even as personal connections and supply chains seem to be becoming ever more important, at least in industries that aren’t simply based on natural resources.

The one other thing that did catch my eye in the Treasury BIM was this paragraph

The Treasury Board. This external advisory group supports the Treasury’s Secretary and ELT to ensure that its organisational strategy, capability and performance make the best possible contribution to the achievement of its goals. Current members of the Board are the Secretary to the Treasury (Gabriel Makhlouf), the Chief Operating Officer (Fiona Ross), Sir Ralph Norris, Whaimutu Dewes, Cathy Quinn, Mark Verbiest, Harlene Hayne and John Fraser (Secretary to the Australian Treasury).

Now, to be fair, the “Treasury Board” has no statutory existence, and no statutory powers.  It isn’t even clear why it exists at all –  Boards are typically supposed to represent shareholders, and as regards Treasury, the Minister of Finance, Parliament, and the SSC are supposed to do that on our behalf.  But given that there is an advisory Board, what is a senior public servant from another country  –  the Secretary to the Australian federal Treasury –  doing on it?      New Zealand and Australia might be two of the closer countries in the world, but we don’t always have the same interests, and at times those interests –  and perspectives – clash rather sharply.    I gather John Fraser is quite highly regarded, but who does he owe allegiance to, and whose interests is he advancing in his work on the New Zealand “Treasury Board”?  I might not worry if he were a retired former Treasury Secretary from Australia, but he is a serving official of the Australian government.  It seems extraordinary, and quite inappropriate.   Did he, for example, have any involvement in the recent, superficially questionable, appointment of a former senior Queensland public servant to a top position in our Treasury?    Again, close working relationships between the two Treasurys –  each as servants of their own governments –  might be reasonably expected, and perhaps mutually beneficial.   But providing a senior official of another government with inside access to the senior-level workings of one of our premier government departments seems questionable at best.  GIven Makhlouf’s past enthusiasm for China, perhaps the appeasers at the New Zealand China Council will soon be suggesting he appoint someone from China’s Ministry of Finance could join Fraser on the “Board”?

And finally, some kudos for a bureaucrat.  As various people have noted, Graeme Wheeler went for five years as Governor –  as the most powerful unelected person in New Zealand –  without ever exposing himself to a searching interview, or making himself available for an interview on either main TV channel’s weekend current affairs shows.  His appointment might be highly legally questionable, he might be only minding the store for a few months, but yesterday Grant Spencer went one better than Wheeler and sat down for interview on Q&A with Corin Dann.    I thought he did well, but what really counted was just showing up, and being open to questions.

Since much of the interview was about Spencer’s speech last week, which I’ve already written about, there was much in it that I disagreed with.  But I’m not going over that ground again.  Perhaps the one new thing that caught my attention was when Spencer claimed that the Bank is independent for monetary policy, but not around things like LVRs.   That is simply factually untrue.  The Act makes it very clear that any decisions to impose or lift LVR restrictions are solely a matter for the Governor (also a point that the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance and their predecessors have recognised).   Spencer went on to say that if the then government had not wanted the Bank to impose LVR restrictions they wouldn’t have done so.     That might be fine, but I hope they never apply that standard to monetary policy decisions.  And if LVR decisions really are more political and redistributive in nature, perhaps as part of the forthcoming review, the Reserve Bank Act should be changed so that the Reserve Bank offers technical professional advice, but the Minister of Finance makes the decision?.  We can, after all, toss out elected governments.




What does The Treasury want to know? Not about productivity apparently

Last week I joined 80 or 90 other economists and people from related disciplines, drawn from the public sector, universities, consultancies, and think tanks, together with a few commentators, at an event organised by The Treasury.  It was billed as “Wealth and wellbeing: High quality economics in the twenty-first century”.  They were looking for input.

The symposium began with a presentation by The Treasury’s chief economist, Tim Ng, based around a paper he and a couple of colleagues had written, “Improving economic policy advice”.  That paper, in turn, built on the Living Standards Framework that Treasury has devoted a lot of effort to building and promoting over the last half dozen years or so (and which you can read all about here).

The Living Standards Framework has troubled me from the first, and despite the numerous refinements, and attempts to articulate how it is used, and how government policymaking benefits, I remain sceptical.   I’m not the only one: the New Zealand Initiative’s Bryce Wilkinson published a critique last year (pages 7 and 8).  Bryce made a number of good points, including the merits of a traditional cost-benefit analysis approach, and the tendency of the Living Standards Framework to assume the benevolence (and knowledge) of officials and politicians, in a way that simply ignores much of the economic literature around incentives, information, and the possibilities of the sort of government failure we see all the time.

The Treasury has for some years now proclaimed a vision for itself

Driving what we do is our vision to be a world-class Treasury working toward higher living standards for New Zealanders.

Like Bryce, I’m also uneasy about that

Personally, I am not a fan of vision statements for government agencies. Public servants are paid to serve their elected ministers in the wider public interest and perform their delegated authorities impartially.

Either Treasury’s vision has content –  in which case it has no more legitimacy than the personal preferences of a group of senior officials –  or it is little more than vacuous waffle (“we want to do well”).

There is much the same lack of clarity around the Living Standards Framework, the  centrepiece of which now appears to be this smart new picture.

Higher Living Standards - The Four Capitals - Natural, social, human and financial/physical

Good things flow from these “four capitals”.

There is an accessible, relatively recent, guide to using the Living Standards Framework(LSF).  But it is still not clear whether there is very much substance to it at all, or whether it ever means anything more than “when you do policy advice, there are lots of dimensions it can be important to think about”.  As if anyone ever doubted it.    Treasury talk about a list of six ways they have used the framework.  The first was for brainstorming, but then surely the whole point of brainstorming is not to be tied into an artificial organising framework?   They also show an example of analysing defence policy using the LSF, but (despite the pretty picture, page 10) it is not clear at all how analysing defence policy as a contribution to “social cohesion: abroad” is particularly helpful to anyone.   And their final use is “to measure progress”, featuring a heroic attempt to illustrate change across each of the dimensions since 1870.  An exercise of that sort might be useful for economic and social historians –  with all the inevitable caveats –  but it isn’t clear how it helps today’s ministers.  In fact, it would still be interesting to know whether any major decisions during the term of the previous goverment were made differently because of the advent of the LSF.

Perhaps it will be different under the new government? My observation at the time Treasury first came up with the LSF was that they seemed to be preparing for a Labour/Greens government.

There is also still the tone of a “grab bag” of the latest trendy ideas to it.   This line appeared in the paper presented to the Symposium

To be relevant, wellbeing measurement and cost-benefit analysis need to be sensitive to changing technological, ecological and social trends, such as digitalisation, globalisation, the rise of China, environmental limits, and an increasing policy focus on inequality.

And anything else ministers, citizens, or bureaucrats happen to find “relevant” at the time?  It doesn’t sound like much of a basis for rigorous, detached, free and frank advice.

One of the many problems is that there is little robust basis for aggregating all these issues, concerns and indicators.   But that doesn’t stop The Treasury, who have apparently decided to use the OECD’s Better Life Index, another theory-free ad hoc summary measure (on which New Zealand happens to score well).

Conveniently perhaps, the OECD index doesn’t even include either GDP per capita or related productivity measures (although there are some other income measures).   For some of the variables, it isn’t even clear whether, or why, something counts as good or bad.  The employment rate is in the index, but employment is mostly an input (inputs are costly), not an output –  and yet I presume the OECD counts a high employment rate as “a good thing”.   New Zealand score on ‘years of education’ will presumably lift now that we are going to have free tertiary education, but there is no assurance that the policy will lift average national wellbeing (as distinct from transfering it from one group to another).   Labour market insecurity appears in the index, in a measure in which a country is penalised for having low unemployment benefits relative to market wages –  but what basis is there for the OECD’s implicit judgement that one system is better than the other in the longer-term?  The share of expenditure devoted to housing also appears in the index: it will tend to be higher in a country with larger houses, but what basis is there for any sort of welfare interpretation of the numbers.   (And, on the other hand, the share of the native-born population living abroad –  a reasonable relative-welfare indicator, taken from revealed preferences – doesn’t appear in the index at all.)

These indices, and the Treasury’s Living Standards Framework, often seem to be developed in reaction to some sort of caricatured view that GDP (even per capita GDP) is everything.   But the problem with the caricature is that it is view that no one has ever held.  Every economic policy adviser recognises (for example) that GDP includes the spending/activity to replace depreciated physical capital.  A measure of net domestic product is a little more useful for welfare purposes, and a measure of net national income (distinguishing the income generated that accrues to residents) better still.   Measures of consumption per capita might be better again, if the purpose of economic activity is conceived as supporting consumption over time.   And it is not as if the concepts of externalities, or the depletion or degradation of natural resources, are exactly new phenomena.   And if some government were crazy enough (and powerful enough) to simply set out to maximise GDP per capita, they’d conscript us all, prohibiting retirement, individualised childcare, or even any leisure beyond what the maintenance of productive capacity might require.   It doesn’t happen in free societies (although it came close in wartime).   It is a straw man.  (As incidentally would a similar articulation about GDP per hour worked: if a government were crazy enough to seek to unconditionally maximise that variable they would simply ban all but the most productive people from working at all.)

So the issue about productivity, or GDP per capita, isn’t that the goal of policy has ever been to maximise either.  After almost 70 years of underperformance (productivity growth less than in other countries), one doesn’t have to get into debates about “maximising productivity” to want Treasury to be able to offer good answers about why we are in this situation, and how we might out of it.   Officials and advisers might concentrate on identifying roadblocks –  government policies that impede firms and households making choices they would otherwise take –  the removal of which might result in GDP/productivity outcomes more in line with those in other, apparently more successful, countries.  Of course, each of those interventions needs to be evaluated on its own merits.    There are good reasons to make schooling compulsory, or not have lump sum taxes or whatever, but many regulatory interventions won’t pass any sort of decent test (as, in its day, rules that led to the assembly of TVs didn’t).  I’d argue that our immigration policy doesn’t.

And if I can’t fully put my finger on what I don’t like about the “four capitals approach” it is a sense –  not stated, perhaps not even believed, but implicit nonetheless –  that these are resources of the government, to be marshalled and managed by governments in what they judge to be some sort of “national interest”.   And all too little of a sense that governments more often corrode these so-called capitals than foster them.

And in the New Zealand specific context, a focus on the Living Standards Framework can come to provide cover for the failure to grapple with New Zealand’s long-term economic underperformance and (in this specific context) the failure of The Treasury –  the government’s principal economic advisers –  to be able to offer compelling advice, built on compelling analysis and narrative, for what has gone wrong, and what might be done to fix it.   Perhaps we’ll see some startling new insight on that problem when the Treasury’s Briefing for the Incoming Minister is finally released, but I’m not expecting it – there have been no new ideas tested in working papers or speeches or anything of the sort.  In the paper presented at last week’s Symposium there was more on macroeconomic stabilisation issues (which New Zealand does relatively well) than on productivity, and no obvious policy ideas (on productivity) beyond changing the tax treatment of housing and land use laws (there might be elements of use in that, but no one seriously believes those changes alone would close the 60 per cent gap between, say, productivity levels in New Zealand and those in places like France, Germany, the Netherlands or the United States).

Much of the focus on the Symposium seemed to be on building links between Treasury and the academics.  I’m not sure they got far on the day, although the forum did provide a good opportunity for the academics to remind Treasury that (a) research costs money, (b) research takes time, and (c) the PBRF university ranking and funding scheme strongly discourages academics from doing any research, however well-remunerated, that doesn’t lead to publication to international journals or books published by university presses.

Treasury also used the occasion to launch something called the Community for Policy Research as part of strengthening relationships with researchers working on New Zealand issues.    As part of that, they have released a Research Interests document, a list of research interests which is

“our assessment of where additional research with a New Zealand focus could be useful.  It reflects a number of judgements, including our sense of gaps in the evidence base, where we believe polciy development is being hampered by lack of evidence and emerging medium to long term issues. Often we are looking for research that will help us make a step change, where wider debate will be necessary over the medium to long term”.

Which sounds fine, until one actually turns to the list.

On fiscal policy, for example, there is an item

“Should New Zealand have an Independent Fiscal Council?”

Perhaps it should, perhaps it shouldn’t, but it is explicit Labour and Greens policy that we should.   Presumably the outstanding issues are around the form, and responsibilities, that Council should take?

There are 13 macroeconomic topics –  many of them rather technical (output gap estimation, time-varying NAIRU estimation –  and not a single one of those topics relates to any sort of timeframe beyond the cyclical.    Thus, they are interested in “different approaches to population/immigration projections (eg Bayesian)” but apparently there are no outstanding issues around the longer-term term impact of immigration policy (whether on productivity, or those social and environmental capitals).

In fact, the word “productivity” doesn’t appear at all (or any cognates).  Does Treasury have all the answers already, or have they more or less given up?    The productivity issues seem like classic New Zealand-specific longer-term issues that The Treasury –  principal economic advisers to the government –  really should be looking for answers to, and associated research on.  But, apparently, topics like “What is the relationship between volunteer work, social and human capital?” count as more pressing.

Several people at the symposium took the opportunity to push back in reaction to Treasury’s recent boast that this year it had hired no one with just a straight economics degree.   As one public servant put it, they wouldn’t want to go to a mechanic for brain surgery, and as another former public servant noted, Treasury needs to be really excellent in its economic advice –  and tacking a few short day-release economics courses on to a degree in a quite different subject isn’t really likely to be enough.  One might be less bothered if there was a sense that Treasury’s analysis and advice was consistently excellent, and the only obstacle to first-rate policy was the politicians (of whatever stripe).  That just isn’t so these days.

Finally, it was interesting to observe the numbers of Treasury speakers and of panellists attempting to use Maori phrases, or introductions, or talking about the need to incorporate Maori perspectives into thinking about wellbeing.  As it went on, I started looking round the room trying to spot anyone who might themselves be Maori (noting that there were at least four adult migrants at my table –  of 10  –  alone).  Finally, my curiosity was satisfied when one of the panellists, clearly with the same sort of reaction, asked for a show of hands.  In a room of at least 80 people,  two responded that they identified as Maori. I hope it left the organisers just a little uncomfortable.

I’ve been reasonably critical of Treasury’s work in this (excessively long) post.  But I would commend them on the aspiration behind the occasion, and on going to the effort of openly engaging with a wider group of policy and research people, openly articulating issues they are interested in seeing research on.  There is a place for confidential policy advice and for the free and frank exchange of views between ministers and officials, but our understanding of the issues is only likely to be advanced by open, two way, dialogue and debate at earlier stages of the process.  Some of the challenges New Zealand faces are substantial, and the pool of able, interested and available people isn’t large, or necessarily restricted only to the public service.




OIA: unexpected bouquets and brickbats

I have been critical over the years of the Reserve Bank’s approach to Official Information Act requests.  I made mention of it, in passing, just this morning.   The long-established practice had been to withhold absolutely anything they could conceivably get away with, and to delay as long as possible anything they really had to release.   The presumptions of the Act (well, specific provisions actually), of course, operate in the opposite direction.

In the last couple of weeks I had lodged requests for a couple of pieces I had written while I was still working at the Bank in 2014.   One was the text of a speech, on New Zealand economic history and the evolution of economic policy, to a group of Chinese Communist Party up-and-coming officials, delivered as part an Australia New Zealand School of Government programme (in which they got to hear from John Key, Gerry Brownlee, Iain Rennie, no doubt a few others, and me).     The other was a discussion note I had written on how best to think of New Zealand’s economic exposure to China.    The second request was lodged only late on Monday.    I could not envisage any good (lawful) reason for them to withhold the material, but that often hasn’t stopped the Reserve Bank in the past.  If they released the material at all, I was anticipating a 20 working day wait.

But this afternoon, I received both documents in full.  I was shocked.  I took the opportunity to send a note to the Bank thanking them for the prompt response.  And as I have often been critical here of aspects of the Bank’s handling of various things, including OIA requests, I thought I should take the opportunity to record my appreciation openly.    Who knows what prompted the change, but it is an encouraging sign.  Perhaps the “acting Governor” (a sound caretaker, unlawful as his appointment may be) is making a positive difference?

On the other hand, I’ve usually been pretty openly positive about The Treasury’s approach to OIA requests.  One isn’t always happy with their decisions, but there is a strong sense that they generally do all they can to be as open as possible.    There is the look and feel of an agency that seeks to comply with the spirit of the Act, as well as the letter.

But not when it comes to the Rennie review.   Some time ago, they refused a journalist’s request for the terms of reference for the review.   They also refused to release some of the papers associated with the Rennie review (including drafts of the report) that I had requested some time ago .   In July they told me they wouldn’t release papers because of “advice still under consideration” (even though that is not a statutory ground, and Rennie is neither a minister nor an official, and even though I had not then requested a copy of the final report which had been delivered in April).

But time has moved on, and so early last week I lodged a fresh request.  This time I asked for:

I am requesting copies of :

  • the draft supplied to Treasury on 5 April 2017
  • the report delivered to Treasury on 18 April 2017
  • the version of the report sent out for peer review
  • the completed report incorporating any comments provided by the peer reviewers.
  • copies of comments supplied on the draft paper by peer reviewers
  • file notes of meetings Rennie or assisting Treasury staff had with non-Treasury people in the course of undertaking the review (including the Board of the Reserve Bank).

I am also requesting copies of any advice to the Minister of Finance or his office on the Rennie review, and matters covered in it, since 18 April 2017.

And this afternoon I got a response from The Treasury, refusing to release any of this material.

Their justification?

This is necessary to maintain the current constitutional conventions protecting the confidentiality of advice tendered by Ministers and officials.

That is, in principle, a valid statutory ground (unless public interest considerations trump it).  But…..Iain Rennie is not an official or a Minister, but was rather a contractor to The Treasury.

But what about the advice to the Minister himself (or his office)?  Well, according to Treasury,  “Mr Rennie’s report has not been tendered to the Minister of Finance, nor has any other Treasury advice on this issue since the report was commissioned.”

So, the report which was requested by the Minister of Finance himself (he told a journalist so in April which is how news of the review became public), which was finalised more than six months ago, has not been sent to the Minister of Finance at all, and nor has any advice from Treasury been sent.  Since oral briefings are covered by the Official Information Act, we must then assume that a notoriously hands-on minister has no idea what is in a report he requested, and which was finished six months ago.   Perhaps, but it seems unlikely.

Treasury tries to claim in its letter “that this work was commissioned to inform Treasury’s post-election advice”.  But that certainly wasn’t the impression the Minister of Finance was giving in April, when this was presented as his own initiative.   But even if that story is true, it still isn’t grounds for withholding a six months old consultant’s report paid for with public money.  It is official information, and releasing the report is not the same –  at all –  as releasing Treasury’s views on it.

There were three external reviewers of the draft report.  Comments were sought from:

  • Charles Goodhart, an academic and former Bank of England official and MPC member,
  • Don Kohn, former vice-chair of the Fed, and currently a member of the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee, and
  • David Archer, former Assistant Governor of the Reserve Bank and now a senior official at the Bank for International Settlements.

The comments of the first two are withheld on the standard ground “to maintain the current constitutional conventions protecting the confidentiality of advice tendered by Ministers and officials”, but neither Goodhart nor Kohn is either an official (of New Zealand or –  in Goodhart’s case of anywhere) or a Minister, and these are comments on a draft report I’m seeking, not something ever likely to get as far as the Minister of Finance.

Archer’s comments are withheld on different grounds:

  • “the making available of that information would be likely to prejudice the entrusting of information to the Government of New Zealand on the basis of confidence by the Government of any other country or any agency of such a Governoment or by an international organisation”

But there is no indication that Archer was commenting on behalf of an international organisation, but rather was offering personal views (rather than confidential “information”).   It isn’t, say, confidential information about the business of, say, the BIS.

  • “to protect information which is subject to an obligation of confidence where the making available of the information would likely prejudice the supply of similar information or information from the same source and it is in the public interest that such information should continue to be supplied”.

There is no evidence that (a) Archer’s comments, made presumably in a personal capacity, were subject to an “obligation of confidence”, or (b) that publishing his comments on a draft report would make him less likely to provide such comments (not clearly “information” in any case) on future Treasury consultants’ reports on Reserve Bank issues.      And nor is there any reason why this clause should apply any more to Archer’s comments than to those of Goodhart and Kohn –  for which it has not been invoked.

It is all (a) incredibly obstructive and (b) not remotely convincing.  I will be appealing The Treasury’s decision to the Ombudsman.  Perhaps some journalist might consider asking Steven Joyce if it is really true that he has no idea what is in the Rennie report that he asked for eight months ago, which was completed six months ago, and which is held by his own department.  Even if that is true, it is not good grounds under the Act for withholding a consultant’s report, let alone drafts of it.

So, well done Reserve Bank.  And it is a shame about The Treasury.






Things busy bureaucrats do all day

When I was very young one of the picture books I enjoyed –  favourably reviewed, so I see now, even by the New Yorker – was Richard Scarry’s What do people do all day?  Set in Busytown, there was a pervasive sense of activity and, well, busyness.  I don’t think the book had a separate entry for government policy advisers, but the book came to mind as I reflected on a Treasury guest lecture I went to yesterday.

A recently-retired MBIE official had been invited by Treasury to share her experiences of 10 years in the regional economic development wing of MBIE (or its predecessor the Ministry of Economic Development (MED)), and the title of the lecture was “The Great Cat Muster”.     At the start of the lecture she asked us to observe Chatham House rules, by which she meant that anything she said could be reported, but that she shouldn’t be identified.  I’m not sure why, when the flyer for the presentation is easily accessible on Treasury’s website, but for my purposes the presenter’s name probably isn’t very important.  The worry is that her content epitomised a cast of mind that can too easily pervade official bureaucracies.   As I summed it up last night to another attendee “all that energy and good intention, with so little of an analytical framework and even less evidence”.

We weren’t off to a good start when she briefly ran through her various roles in regional development.  In the first of them she had, apparently, been responsible for the West Coast timber settlement. But, as she noted –  and full marks for candour I suppose –  when the NZIER later rated the policy paper on this issue (as they do for a bunch of participating ministries), it scored the worst rating MED had ever achieved.

But most of her time had been spent on more pro-active government initiatives.  There was something called the Food Innovation Network, work on Maori economic development, and then for the last few years work as part of the flagship Regional Growth Programme.  The presenter was clearly pretty passionate about what she’d been doing and the relationships she’d been building.  There was no shortage of energy or ambition.  And no shortage of central Wellington perspectives either.  There were countless working groups, and charts to illustrate complex networks across central government and between arms of central and regional governments.  Meetings abounded, briefing papers multiplied, Air New Zealand profited from frequent flights, relationships were built, and sometimes the recalcitrant were called into line, or simply bypassed.   At one point, she even celebrated the “fact” that regional governments had mostly simply chosen to ignore an act of Parliament –  for the greater good no doubt.  And as for the private sector, well……..the government had simply had to be involved in the Food Innovation Network because we had to develop our food industries, and add value to our exports, and they had found that the private sector was “terribly unsophisticated”.

We learned about the regional studies that have been conducted in several areas under the auspices of the Regional Growth Programme, itself initially sponsored by three ministers (and their agencies).  Now there are “action plans” sponsored by even more minister and agencies.   One mayor had apparently finally been convinced by wise officials that one particular product did not represent his district’s economic future.

It was all remarkably busy.   I had to sympathise with the senior manager who, she recounted, had asked her of one programme “can you be sure we can contain this?”.  To which her response had been along the lines of “well, no, I can’t.  You’ll just have to trust me”.

But, since this presentation was being held at The Treasury, and MBIE is purportedly an economic agency, a few simple things struck me as missing.    There was little or no sense of any of the myriad ways in which governments and official agencies fail, and sometimes leave things even worse than when they started.  There was nothing at all, even in passing, on what the market failures might have been to justify all this busyness in pursuit of regional economic development.     Hadn’t we been this way before, numerous times (one of my earliest political memories is of Matai)?   And, for all the busyness, what difference had all this regional development promotion activity actually made.   After all, there had been no national productivity growth for the last five years, and although she several times highlighted the idea of boosting export industries, exports as a share of GDP have been falling.

So when question time came I stuck up my hand and asked what the market failures were, and how different things would have been if none of this activity had gone on.

Her response was that the market failure was “information asymmetries”.  It wasn’t at all clear what she thought she meant by that phrase, but she seemed to have in mind some sense that central government knew stuff people in the regions (private sector or government) didn’t.  Public servants had needed to “explain to regions where they fit in the system”.    That just isn’t what any economist means by the sort of information asymmetry that might –  just possibly, under some circumstances –  warrant government intervention.  But then it got even worse.  She declared that she’d come from a family that didn’t rank public servants very highly, but “I’ve come to realise that public servants see things no one else sees”, and can offer a “strategic perspective”.

She overlooked answering the second part of my question, so when other people had asked their questions, I asked again what difference all this regional development promotion activity had actually made.  And there was a brief moment of dawning unease: “I sometimes ask myself that”.  She went on to claim that the effects can’t necessarily be quantified by statistics, and that the gains might take more than a few years to realise, but that if we didn’t “do something” we’d see the eventual effects of that.

What stunned me, in someone invited to give such a public lecture at Treasury, was the lack of any rigour, the lack of any robust framework, around all this effort.  Not that many years ago, we’d have counted on The Treasury to be particular intolerant of such, apparently, woolly enthusiasm (at the taxpayer’s expense).  But no longer?  I’d like to think that somewhere in MBIE or Treasury there is a somewhat more hard-headed assessment and evaluation going on, but….it wasn’t on display yesterday.

(And, as one other sceptical attendee described it to me, most of the other attendees –  I suspect mostly public servants –  appeared to be “lapping it up”. I really hope that assessment is wrong, but there were no other sceptical questions from the floor.)

In a way, perhaps, one of the MBIE staff in the audience summed up, unwittingly, the problem with much of this.  He noted that they have “been focused on the levers we can pull easily”, while ignoring others.  And with, it seems, no hard-headed analysis as to whether levers MBIE can’t pull might be considerably more important than those they can –  I think, most notably, of the real exchange rate.

And what of the regional economies?  How have they been doing?  To have listened to the presentation one might have supposed they were wastelands of poverty and economic failure, remarkably different from the urban centres of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

But the data don’t really seem to back up that sort of story.  Take the unemployment rate for example.  Here is a chart showing the median unemployment rate for the regional council areas other than Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch against the unemployment rate for Auckland.

regional U

For most of the last decade, Auckland’s unemployment rate has been a bit above that in the median non-urban region (even though theory typically predicts that a big urban area will typically have a slightly lower unemployment rate –  skill matching is a bit easier in a deeper market).

Or the same chart for the employment rate.

employment rate regions

For the last 15 years, the employment rate in the median region has typically been a touch higher than that in Auckland.

What about regional GDP? In earlier posts, I’ve pointed out that Auckland has been seriously underperforming relative to the rest of New Zealand: not only is GDP per capita relative to the rest of the country low compared to what we see for big cities in typical advanced countries, but that margin has been shrinking since 2000.    The flipside of that, of course, is that the non-Auckland bits of the country have been doing okay on this measure (not absolutely –  New Zealand’s overall productivity record is poor –  but better than Auckland).

This chart shows the GDP per capita of the median non-urban region relative to GDP per capita in Auckland (I could have used the median of the three big urban areas, but in every single year Auckland was the median).

regional GDP regions vs akld.png

In the last couple of years –  for which SNZ still label the data provisional –  the median region has lost a bit of ground relative to Auckland (big building booms to accommodate population surges tend to do that), but (a) over the last decade the regions have lost no ground, and (b) over the full period since 2000 they’ve made quite a bit of ground on Auckland.

There just doesn’t seem to be much in the data to warrant government regional economic development programmes, even if one believed –  as I don’t – that such programmes might make any material useful difference to economic outcomes.   Markets work when governments let them, and governments are better advised to focus on getting the overall parameters of economic policy set right –  tax rates, regulation, even immigration policy –  and let activity then occur where it will.  The private sector won’t typically or consistently be slow to seize opportunities, and when they get things wrong mostly they are the ones who live with the consequences.  When officials and ministers spend lots of our money on busy programmes signifying much and accomplishing little, then not so much.

Looking through the glossy document MBIE put out (they do those really well), under the auspices of three ministers, it was hard not to conclude that the whole programme had probably been more about being seen to be busy, and shoring up the National vote in the provinces, than about making a material difference to economic performance.



Treasury not convinced about the economic strategy?

Or so it would seem from looking at the forecast tables accompanying today’s PREFU.

Recall that the government has long had a goal of materially increasing the share of New Zealand’s GDP accounted for by exports (with, presumably, a more or less matching increase in imports).  As I’ve highlighted on various occasions –  yesterday most recently – if anything the actual export share of GDP has been shrinking.

Here is the share of exports in GDP, showing actuals for the last decade or so, and Treasury’s projections for the next few years.

x to gdp

By the end of that forecast period, there will only be four more years until the goal of a much-increased export share of GDP was to be met.  On these numbers, exports as a share of GDP would by then be at their lowest since 1989, 32 years earlier.  So much for a more open globalising economy.

(The government actually specifies their target as the ratio of real exports to real GDP, while this chart is nominal exports to nominal GDP.    Statisticians generally advise against using the real formulation.  But on this occasion, it doesn’t make much difference either way.    Over the five forecast years, the volume of exports is forecast to rise by 10.8 per cent, and real GDP is forecast to rise by 15.6 per cent.   Whichever way you look at it, The Treasury expects the export share of the economy to carry on shrinking over the next few years.)

In many respects that isn’t very surprising.  Treasury expects no fall in the exchange rate at all over the period, and they expect rapid increases in the OCR from around the end of next year.  And they expect continued rapid population growth.

It is a non-tradables skewed economy, and while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with non-tradables, it isn’t usually a successful path for countries seeking to achieve higher productivity and sustained national prosperity.    (Although Treasury does forecast that six years of zero productivity growth will finally come to an end, and we’ll have respectable productivity growth from 2019 onwards.  What this is based on, who knows.  We can hope I suppose.)



Who did Iain Rennie consult?

I’ve written a couple of times about the review former State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie has been conducting, at the request of the Minister of Finance, into two aspects of the governance of the Reserve Bank:

  • whether something like the existing internal committee in which the Governor makes his OCR decisions should be formalised in legislation, and
  • whether the Reserve Bank should remain the “owner” of the various pieces of legislation (RB Act, as well as the insurance and non-bank legislation) it operates under.

An earlier OIA request from a journalist saw The Treasury refuse to release the terms of reference for the report, but they did release the terms of engagement.  I wrote about that here.    We learned from that release that the report had been delivered to Treasury in mid-April.    We also learned that

In completing the work, the author will engage with an agreed set of domestic and international experts.


The key deliverable is a report, which will be peer reviewed by a panel of international experts.

I was interested to know who these experts were, and lodged an OIA request with Treasury.  No doubt, they could readily have responded in a day or so, but after four weeks they did finally respond yesterday.

Anyway, this was the list of “agreed domestic and international experts”.


and this was the list of reviewers


It is a curious list in many ways.    Setting aside the SSC people, of whom I know nothing but who are presumably knowledgeable on issues of governance of New Zealand public sector institutions, not a single one of the central bank experts (first list) has any experience of, or exposure to New Zealand (let alone actually being a New Zealander).

And Rennie, with Treasury’s agreement, appears to have consulted only current serving central bankers.   No doubt several will have had useful perspectives to offer on their own central banks’ experiences.  But the world of central bankers is a fairly clubby (or collegial) one, and you would have to think it unlikely that Rennie would have heard anything from these people that would cast doubt on how the arrangements their New Zealand peers operated under were working.   And among those current central bankers only one (Poloz, the Canadian Governor) has any stature in his own right; the others appear to be “corporate bureaucrats”, able no doubt to pass on information about how things work in their own central banks, but not self-evidently qualifying as “international experts” on central bank governance etc.

One might have supposed that any number of other people (even from abroad) could have provided valuable perspectives and insights.  For example, retired Governors and former members of decisionmaking committees, who are freer to speak their mind.   Lars Svensson, the leading academic and former monetary policy board member, wrote a review of our Reserve Bank in 2001 for our then-government.   Having had extensive experience as an insider since then, and retaining an interest in New Zealand, he would have seemed like a natural person for Rennie to have consulted.    In fact, there is not one academic on the list.   Not, for example, Alan Blinder, former vice-chair of the Fed and author of academic work on decisionmaking by committee.   There are no private economists on the list.  Not, for example, Willem Buiter now chief economist of Citibank and a former academic and member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee.  And no one from abroad with, say, a Treasury perspective, or the perspective of a Minister.  Bernie Fraser, for example, had been both Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, and Secretary to the (Australian) Treasury.

And not a single person from New Zealand made the expert list?  Not Arthur Grimes, who was heavily involved in the design of the current system and later chair of the Reserve Bank Board.  Not Don Brash, who was Governor under the current system for 12 years.  Not thoughtful former Board members such as (for example) Hugh Fletcher.  Not people who had been involved from a Treasury perspective (especially in the years since Rennie himself left Treasury).  And, of course, no one who has written on the issues domestically.

You might, incidentally, be wondering why people from the Bank of Canada and the Bank of Israel top the list of experts.  That is likely to be because Canada is the only other advanced country central bank with the Governor as (formally) single decisionmaker (Canada has quite old central banking legislation, and the Bank of Canada has much narrower responsibilities than our Reserve Bank).  And until relatively recently, Israel also had the Governor as a single decisionmaker, before the legislation was overhauled and a mixed committee (internals and externals) took over the monetary policy decisionmaking role.  The Israeli experience should be interesting, but again you have to wonder why Rennie didn’t consult Stan Fischer, former Governor of the Bank of Israel, and now vice-chair of the Federal Reserve.

What of the international peer reviewers?  There were three, and each will have been likely to have added something in commenting on Rennie’s draft.    But, again, there is a distinctly “let’s keep this inside the club” feel to it all.   Goodhart, for example, is a respected academic economist, and former staff member and Monetary Policy Committee member at the Bank of England.    But he is now rather elderly, and has had a very strong relationship with the Reserve Bank of New Zealand over the years –   including as guest speaker at the (rather extravagant) 50th anniversary celebrations of the Bank, and then someone used as an expert witness  by the Bank at the parliamentary select committee when the current Reserve Bank Act –  governance and all – was being legislated (rather controversially) in 1989.

Donald Kohn is pretty highly-respected in international central banking circles.  So much so that Treasury omit to note in their description that, having retired from a career at the Federal Reserve, he is now a member of the Bank of England Financial Policy Committee, so still entirely within the central banking club.  He has visited the Reserve Bank and, from memory, wrote up his experiences pretty positively.

The final reviewer is David Archer, former Assistant Governor and Head of Economics at the Reserve Bank (and sometimes mentioned on lists of potential future Governors). He now holds a senior position at the Bank for International Settlements, a body owned by central banks (including ours) which describes itself thus

The mission of the BIS is to serve central banks in their pursuit of monetary and financial stability, to foster international cooperation in those areas and to act as a bank for central banks.

I worked with David closely over a long period, and he was usually pretty willing to speak his mind.  He certainly knew the Reserve Bank well –  at least in the days before financial regulation became so important, and before the Reserve Bank moved more back into the mainstream of central government as a major regulatory institution –  but you have to wonder quite how free he will have felt to offer views the Reserve Bank might be uncomfortable with – the Governor visits the BIS pretty frequently –  especially as those views will themselves presumably be discoverable in time.

So the offshore people consulted, or used as reviewers, seem as though they will have been a rather partial perspective on the issues at hand. No doubt, all provided some useful information and perspectives, but you can’t help thinking there could have been a lot more there if Rennie had sought it.  Then again, as State Services Commissioner his reputation was hardly that of someone keen on open government.  What is perhaps more troubling is that The Treasury was okay with all this.

Despite this published list, you have to wonder who else Rennie in fact consulted.  Why I do suppose there was anyone else?  Because, somewhat by chance, I also yesterday got a response from the Reserve Bank to an Official Information Act request for minutes of the Reserve Bank Board.

In the minutes of the Board meeting held on 30 March this appears

Rennie board

There follows almost three pages recording the details of the Board’s discussion with Rennie (and his supporting Treasury staff). every single word withheld (on somewhat questionable grounds).    Nothing else ever gets three pages of text in the Board minutes –  in fact, the process for appointing a new Governor is still not being minuted at all, even in this latest set of releases.

I don’t have any particular problem with Rennie consulting with the Bank’s Board.  They are likely to have some useful experiential perspectives to offer, but if the discussion covered almost three pages of minutes and –  according to Treasury –  no one else in New Zealand with any familiarity with central banking issues was consulted, it does all have the feel of an insiders’ job.  Perhaps that is what Steven Joyce wanted.  It isn’t what the situation requires.    Meanwhile, one can only hope that the report itself, along with the terms of reference, will be released before too long.

New Zealand isn’t the only country looking at these issues.  The Norwegian government just this week released an independent report they had commissioned looking at the future governance and mandate of their own central bank.  The summary report is very easy to read, and includes specific draft amendments to the law to give effect to the report’s recommendations.  Among those recommendations is a streamlined system of governance, with proposals for a monetary policy committee (40 per cent of whose members would be externals appointed by the government), and for a separate Board to which the Governor would be responsible in his role as chief executive of the Bank.    We can only hope that the completed Rennie report will be as clear and crisp.