Business investment and SNZ

The calendar says it is summer, but “summer” seems to have bypassed Wellington.  We’ve been back for 10 days and on not one of them has it been warm enough for a swim.  Right now, my phone says it is warmer in Waiouru than in Wellington.  And so, between driving lessons for my son, I’m still pottering in the national accounts data released late last year, although this will be the last such post for now.

At the end of November, I ran a post here on investment and capital stocks, drawing on the annual national accounts data released a few days earlier.  One of the central charts was this one

What about business investment?   SNZ don’t release a series for this –  but they could, and it is frustrating that they don’t –  so this chart uses a series derived by subtracting from total investment general government and residential investment spending.  It is a proxy, but a pretty common one.

bus investment to marc 19

Business investment as a share of GDP has been edging up, but it is still miles below the average for, say, 1993 to 2008, a period when, for example, population growth averaged quite a lot lower than it is now.  All else equal, more rapid population growth should tend to be associated with higher rates of business investment (more people need more machines, offices, computers, or whatever).

So common is this proxy for business investment that for a long time it was how the OECD was doing things, including in cross-country comparisons where New Zealand mostly did poorly.    Note that none of this approximation would be necessary if Statistics New Zealand routinely published a business investment series.  There is no obvious reason for them not to do so –  no individual institution confidentiality is being protected (as an example of one reason SNZ sometimes advance for non-publication).

My working assumption has long been that government-owned business operations designed to make a profit (notably SOEs) were not being included in “general government”.    I didn’t just make up that assumption; it is a standard delineation advanced by the OECD themselves.  Here is their own definition

Definition:
General government accounts are consolidated central, state and local government accounts, social security funds and non-market non-profit institutions controlled and mainly financed by government units.

In other words, “general government” would include government types of activities, including things –  even semi-commercial things –  mainly funded by government units (whether large losses, or direct subsidies or whatever).   Core government ministries would count.  State schools would count as part of “general government”, but fully private schools would not.  And nor, on the standard interpretation would the investment of New Zealand SOEs (required to aim to generate profits for the Crown) or fully market-oriented trading companies that might happen to have a majority Crown shareholding.    Such trading companies are mostly funded by their customers (and private debt markets) not by the Crown.

But it turns out that this isn’t how SNZ has actually been doing things in New Zealand, at least as regards the “sector of ownership” data I’ve used (and which the OECD has typically used for New Zealand).

I learned this because of a pro-active outreach by an SNZ analyst, to whom I’m very grateful.  This analyst emailed me noting that he had enjoyed my posts on the annual national accounts, but…

In that post you include a chart showing general government investment as a share of GDP. It appears that for your analysis you have utilised the sector of ownership and market group breakdown of our GFKF data, combining both market and non-market activities of entities with central or local government ownership. I wanted to make you aware that this includes state owned enterprises – market orientated units with government ownership. As a result your government investment figures will include, for example, Air New Zealand’s investment in aircraft and electricity units with government ownership.

I suppose it makes sense when one thinks about it (Air NZ and most of the electricity companies are majority government owned, and SNZ confirmed that they do not pro-rate).

As it happens, help was at hand.  The SNZ analyst went on

An alternative source for general government investment data is our institutional sector accounts which include GFKF for each institutional sector.  In recent years we have adopted a new sector classification – Statistical Classification for Institutional Sectors (SCIS) – to give more visibility to the roles of the various sectors in the economy. SCIS sector 3 (General government) GFKF is held under the series SNEA.S3NP5100S300C0 . We are currently expanding the range of sectoral National Accounts that we regularly compile and disseminate on both an annual and quarterly basis.

The following chart compares the sector of ownership basis with the SCIS basis for general government investment as a share of GDP.

poole 1

This then goes on to impact the presentation of business investment as you have calculated it:

poole 2

What are the implications?  “True” general government investment is lower than in the chart I’d shown (the blue line in the first SNZ chart).  But it also marks even more stark how stable the share of GDP devoted to general government investment has been (over 20+ years) despite big swings over that period in the rate of population growth).

On the other hand, business investment as a share of GDP is higher (over all of history) than I have been showing it.  But the extent of the recovery in business investment is even more muted than I had been suggesting.  Despite rapid rates of population growth, business investment in the most recent year was little higher than it was 6-8 years ago, and not that far above the lows seen in the 1991 and 2008/09 recessions.

The helpful SNZ analyst went on to note that SNZ could do things better.

I acknowledge your point that we can improve our presentation of investment data. We are looking at what we can do to improve this, particularly in giving more prominence to the government and business investment dimensions that your post highlights. We do want to support a consistent basis for the monitoring of government and business investment. Our development work to expand our sector based accounts will support this and allow us to improve both our annual and quarterly presentation. Note that the institutional sector accounts have a shorter time series available, but as we work through this we will consider extending the length of the SCIS based GFKF time series.

A quarterly “business investment” series should be treated as a matter of some priority.

The other aspect of my proxy that had bothered me a little over the years was the possibility of an overlap between residential investment and general government investment.  If the government itself was having houses built that should, in principle, show up in both.  I could, therefore, be double-counting my deductions.  I was less worried in years gone by –  the government itself wasn’t having many houses built –  but the current government has talked of large increases in the state house building programme.

SNZ’s analyst suggested I didn’t need to bother.

Apart from needing to make a choice over how to define general government investment as discussed above, the proxy you are using for business investment seems fit for purpose in the interim.

  • There is very little overlap between residential building investment and government investment, so subtracting both from the total is not doubling up on the subtraction much.
  • We represent households ownership of investment properties through separate institutional units to the households themselves. These units are classified to SCIS class 121 (non-corporate business enterprises). There is not a lot of business sector investment in residential property outside of this SCIS class, so subtracting all residential investment in your proxy is fit for purpose.

And yet I was still a little uneasy and went back to him

Thanks too for confirming that there is little overlap between residential building investment and government investment.  That had been my clear impression in the past –  and I know the OECD has done “business investment’ indicators the same way I was doing them –  but had been a little uneasy that with building of state houses ramping up again the overlap might be increasing.  If there still isn’t much overlap is that because (say) the construction only moves into Crown ownership when it is completed?

To which he responded

With regards to your question about the state housing ramp-up and whether that is causing the overlap between government (sector of ownership) investment and residential investment to be increasing… conceptually we should be capturing the state housing under government ownership. This is below our published level, and I’d want to look into the data sources and methodology used before being confident in the quality of the government residential investment data. But based on what I can see, Government residential investment does look to be a small share (typically around 1-2%) of total residential building investment, and there is not a clear trend of change in the share over the last 15 years. The values involved are not large enough to alter your interpretation of business investment in the way that you have derived it.

I was still a bit uneasy –  1-2 per cent didn’t really seem to square with talk of thousands more state houses –  but would have left it for then.  Except that the SNZ analyst came back again

A colleague has reminded me of our building consents release in February (https://www.stats.govt.nz/news/40-year-high-for-home-consents-issued-to-government) where we said:

Home consents issued to central government agencies reached a 40-year high in the year ended December 2018, Stats NZ said today.

Central government agencies, including Housing New Zealand, were granted consent for 1,999 new homes in 2018, which is the highest number since the year ended November 1978 when 2,105 were consented.

“There has been significant increases in new home consents issued to central government agencies in the last few years, with levels approaching those last seen in the 1970s,” construction statistics manager Melissa McKenzie said.

However, private owners (including developers) accounted for 94 percent of the 32,996 new homes consented in the year ended December 2018.

Partnerships between the government and private developers to build new homes may not be reflected in the central government numbers as the results depend on who was listed as the owner on the consent form.

Now, the building consents data then forms the basis for the compilation of our building activity statistics, through a combination of survey sampling and modelling. There is a lag between consent and building activity. So the timing is uncertain, but we should expect the higher consents to flow through to increased building activity. As the last paragraph notes, there are some practical aspects that may impact on the quality of the sector to which the building activity is assigned.

The building activity statistics are a key data source for our residential investment statistics in the National Accounts, but I’d want to look into the National Accounts methodology more to understand whether there are any other aspects impacting the quality of the government residential investment data.

So there seem to be a few problems to be sorted out at the SNZ end, leaving users of the overall investment data –  and particularly anyone looking for a timely business investment proxy –  somewhat at sea.   It probably isn’t a significant issue for making sense of the last decade or two, but if the state is going to be a bigger player in having houses built for it the data for the coming years will be murky indeed.

Unless, that is, Statistics New Zealand treats as a matter of priority the generation and publication of a timely “business investment” series.  They are only agency that can do so, that has access to the breakdown of which government-owned entities are investing, and what proportion of residential building activity is for government.

I guess this is just one among many areas where we see the results of SNZ not really being adequately funded, over many years, to do core business (even as they have funding for extraneous purposes, notably the collation of wellbeing indicators, some sensible, some barmy).   There aren’t many votes in properly funding such core activities, but it doesn’t make them less important.

I really do appreciate the pro-active amd helpful approach of SNZ’s analyst.  I hope his managers are receptive to the need to improve the quality of the investment data SNZ is publishing.

And the bottom line?  So far as we can tell, business investment has remained very weak, and quite inconsistent with what one might have expected in the face of the unexpected surge in the population over the last five years.  Firms, presumably, have not seen many profitable opportunities.

Decomposing the NZ economy…and Australia’s

Continuing on with updating my regular charts in light of the national accounts revisions released last month, I got to the one distinguishing (indicatively) between real growth in the tradables and non-tradables sectors of the economy.    Recall that for these purposes the primary sector (agriculture, forestry, fishing, and mining) and the manufacturing sector count as tradable, together with exports of services.  The rest of GDP is classed, loosely, as non-tradables.   As I’ve noted in an earlier post

The idea is to split out those sectors which face international competition from those that don’t.     It is no more than an indicator, and people often like to point out the components of “non-tradables” where, at least in principle, there is international competition.   But as a rough and ready indicator, it serves its purpose.   It was first developed by a visiting IMF mission about 15 years ago to help illustrate how one might think about the impact of a lift in the real exchange rate.

Here is the latest version of the chart, with both series expressed in per capita terms.

T and NT to sept 19

In per capita terms, there has been no growth at all in (this indicator of) the tradables sector since about 2002.   That is 17 years now.  The economy is increasingly concentrated in the non-tradables sector, the bits (generally) not very exposed to international competition.

One can –  people do –  quibble about adding up these components, so here is a chart of the individual components of the tradables sector measure.    It starts from mid-2002, when the tradables aggregate first got to around the current level.

T and NT components NZ to sept 19

None of these sectors has done particularly well,  The best performer –  oft-cited hope of the future –  services has averaged per capita growth of 0.6 per cent annum.  The mining sector is smaller than it was, and agriculture, forestry and fishing (taken together) has managed no per capita growth since 2012.

Perhaps there is no connection at all between this performance and developments in the real exchange rate

OECD ULC RER 2020

but I doubt many detached observers would think so.

It can get a little repetitive making the point, so this time I decided to put together –  for the first time in some years – the comparable charts for Australia.

Here is the aggregate chart for Australia

Aus T and NT to sept 19

Australia’s tradables sector had also gone more or less sideways for a while, but no longer.     Here is how the two countries’ tradables sectors look like on the same chart.

T and NT tradables

The 1990s were pretty good for the tradables sectors of both countries.  And although Australia has again been performing better in the last few years, even that growth is slower than Australia experienced in the 1990s.  As for New Zealand….well, no growth at all.

Here, for completeness, are the non-tradables sectors of the two countries.

NT components

Our non-tradables sector has been growing a bit faster than Australia’s in recent years.  That looks to be mostly because we’ve had a period of faster population growth –  rapid population growth tends to require more resources devoted to non-tradables sectors (notably construction).

nz and aus popn growth

And what about the breakdown of Australia’s tradables sector?

Aus T components

It is very different from the New Zealand picture in almost every respect.    The mining line didn’t surprise me –  it was the story I expected to be telling –  but the others did, including the continued strong growth of services exports.  Back in 2014 and 2015 it looked as though something similar was happening on both sides of the Tasman, but no longer: services exports here (per capita) have simply stagnated again.

New Zealand and Australia have both enjoyed pretty strong terms of trade in the last couple of decades (Australia’s more volatile than ours).  But over the decades, New Zealand average productivity (real GDP per hour worked) has kept dropping further behind Australia’s –  roughly 42 per cent ahead of us now, compared to about 25 per cent in 1970.   And yet OECD data suggest our real exchange rate has risen relative to Australia’s over that half-century.

aus nz RER

It isn’t that much of a rise –  around 15 per cent –  but the longer-term economic fundamentals pointed in the direction of a fall at least that large.      Policymakers here have, unwittingly (although that isn’t much of an excuse after all this time) delivered a climate –  a combination of factors –  that mean it is very difficult for the tradables sector to grow much in New Zealand.     Unless that changes it is difficult to envisage New Zealand not continuing to slip further behind, not just Australia but other advanced countries as well.

If the government were at all serious about responding to the productivity failings, these are sorts of imbalances they’d be instructing the Productivity Commission to investigate and make sense of.

Once one of our largest towns

A few years ago, in slightly whimsical post-holiday mode, I did a post highlighting a snippet I’d discovered in the Whakatane museum that until about 1950 the Whakatane port handled more shipping tonnage than Tauranga’s did.   These days, of course, Whakatane’s “port” is known only for sports fishing and White Island tours and Tauranga handles the most cargo of any port in the country.  How economies change in just a few decades.

This summer we spent our holiday at Waihi (with my in-laws) and Waihi Beach.  I’ve come to quite like Waihi, and it seems I’m not the only one.  Just a few months ago it was named the “most beautiful small town” in New Zealand, and if that surprised me a little it is certainly a pleasant place, with an air of prosperity about it – and decent French and German bakeries  – one often doesn’t find in small towns these days.     It seems to share in the same sort of insane zoning practices that hold up house prices almost everywhere (if you get on the right side of the council rules there is apparently money to be made subdividing semi-urban sections –  which in any sane world wouldn’t happen for a town set surrounded by large amounts of fairly flat rural land.)    As for the air of prosperity, probably it helps to be on the main road from Auckland to Tauranga, but Waihi has a more prosperous feel than Paeroa, 15 miles nearer Auckland, and I presume that must be down to mining –  represented by the huge open-cast pit perhaps 50 metres from the main shopping street.

What perhaps makes Waihi something of an anomaly is that it is both prosperous and well-kept and yet has fewer people than it had 100+ years ago.

Just prior to World War One, Waihi had an estimated population (31 March 1913) of 6740.  By New Zealand standards, that made it a big place.    Here were the urban area populations at the time.  Of course, then the urban population was mostly in handful of large cities (the old “four main centres”)

waihi 1.png

but Waihi was the 13th largest town/city in the entire country, not much smaller than places like Nelson and Plymouth (and ahead of those other six places I’ve shown, all now substantial cities).  Of those top 13, only Waihi and Palmerston North were not ports.

And why?   That was (gold) mining.   Waihi was by far the largest gold mining operation in New Zealand (and had been the location of the major miners’ strike the previous year –  a confrontation that at its height involved 10 per cent of all New Zealand’s police, and the death of one striker).    And mining in New Zealand wasn’t on a trivial scale.  These were the days of the Gold Standard, when many monetary systems (including our own) were backed by/convertible into gold.  In 1910, New Zealand –  mostly Waihi – accounted from just over 2 per cent of the world’s annual gold production.  Gold production was similar to that from the Australian state of Victoria.  Of the Australian states, only Western Australia produced a lot more (3 to 4 times total New Zealand production).

What about now?   There is still gold (and quite a lot of less-valuable silver) being mined in Waihi.  In fact, just recently Labour ministers overruled one of their Green Party colleagues on a decision that will facilitate mining for some years to come.

But relative to what is going on elsewhere it is a shadow of what it was (and, of course, much less labour intensive).   Total New Zealand gold exports are now about 5 per cent of those of Western Australia.  As a gold producing country, New Zealand now ranks between Ethiopia and Finland, mining about a quarter of one per cent of the world’s new gold production (did you know –  I didn’t –  that China is now, by some margin, the largest producer of gold?).     Most likely, there is a lot of gold elsewhere in the Coromandel Hills, but the political barriers to exploiting it remain formidable.

And as for Waihi, if the mine and its gold and silver production helps keep a town fairly prosperous and well-kept, the latest SNZ population estimate is only 5160, just behind Dannevirke, Carterton, and Dargaville.  Waihi’s population means it is now only our 56th= largest urban area, almost halfway down the SNZ list.  The smallest of the other places on my earlier chart –  Blenheim –  now has six times Waihi’s population.  In fact glancing down the list of 115 urban areas from 1913, Waihi’s drop in the ranking looks more precipitate than any other town in New Zealand, perhaps matched only by a handful of (then much smaller) South Island mining towns.

Natural resources really can make a difference.  Even today, they are the difference between Waihi and numerous down-at-heel rural communities scattered around New Zealand.

Financial literacy: how about schools fix maths etc and governments free up the housing market

It was anything but a slow news week globally, but here in New Zealand not much seemed to be happening (not even much summer, at least in Wellington).    Perhaps that was why the Sunday Star-Times chose to devote two full pages (with the promise of more in the next couple of weeks) to the hardy perennial cause of –   in the words of the headline – “More financial literacy needed”.   Especially (it appears) for kids, from schools.  In years gone by, there have even been public opinion polls –  paid for by people championing the cause –  suggesting that the public agree.

I’m as sceptical as ever, perhaps more so as my own kids have progressed through the education system.  What follows is mostly from a post I wrote on the issue a few years ago

I’m sceptical at a variety of levels.  First, and perhaps most practically, these surveys (and the reported views of advocates) never ask what people would prefer schools to stop teaching.  There are only so many hours in the day/year.  I’d face the same question as to what should the schools stop teaching, but given a choice, personally I’d rather that schools were required to teach a sustained course in New Zealand and British/European history than that they teach so-called financial literacy.   Kids are exposed every day to their parents’ attitudes to, and practices with, money and things.  They aren’t directly exposed, to anything like the same extent, to maths, science, history, or foreign languages.

Second, as far as I can see, the evidence is pretty mixed as to whether teaching “financial literacy” makes any difference to anything that matters.  Are countries with higher “financial literacy” scores richer as a result, more stable, happier?  And a recent report (page 32) for our own government agency that deals with this stuff actually showed that, for what it is worth, the “financial literacy” of New Zealanders scored quite well in international comparisons.  What is the nature of the problem?

financial literacy

Third, why would we expect that the government, and its representatives, would be good people to teach children about money?  …at a bigger picture level, in one way or another governments are the source of most financial crises –  Spain, Ireland, Argentina, the United States, China.   Governments are more prone than most to undertaking projects that they know provide low or negative economic rates of return.  Governments face fewer market disciplines than citizens. And governments don’t have to live with the consequences of their mistakes.  So perhaps I could support a civics programme that included a section on critically evaluating election promises and government policy announcements.

Fourth, much of the discussion in this area is quite strongly value-laden.  And no doubt it has always been so.  I recall the day when our 6th form economics class was visited by a banker, to try to promote savings etc.  He brought along a hundred dollar note –  this was 1978, and it was probably the first time any of us had seen one.  Trying to set up a discussion about the merits of bank deposits (probably with negative real interest rates at the time), he asked us all what we’d do with the $100 if we had it.  Various class mates rattled off their spending wishes, but the banker was totally flummoxed when one of my friends, a strong Christian, told him that what she’d do was to give it away.

And where, for example, in all the discussion of financial literacy is there any reference to the idea that one of the best routes to financial security is to get married and to stay married?  There are elements of both causation and correlation there, but finding the right spouse, and learning what is required to make a lifelong commitment work, is almost certainly a more (financially) valuable lesson that knowing that when interest rates fall bond prices rise.  But it is not one we are likely to hear from the powers that be –  particularly not under the current government.

And fourth, this becomes an excuse for yet more bureaucratic/political bumpf, reinforcing a sense that governments should have “strategies” about everything and anything.  I was somewhat surprised to learn that our government has a financial capability strategy.  Why?

Building the financial capability of New Zealanders is a priority for the Government.  It will help us improve the wellbeing of our families and communities, reduce hardship, increase investment, and  grow the economy.

The National Strategy for Financial Capability led by the Commission for Financial Capability provides a framework for building financial capability. It has five key streams:

  • Talk: a cultural shift where it’s easy to talk about money
  • Learn: effective financial learning throughout life
  • Plan: everyone has a current financial plan and is prepared for the unexpected
  • Debt-smart: people make smart use of debt
  • Save and invest: everyone saving and investing

On this measure, might we assume that “debt-smart” would mean taking as much interest-free student debt as possible and paying it off as slowly as possible?  Not an approach I will be encouraging in my children.

More generally, I’m not sure that any of these items represent areas where we should expect governments to bring much of value to the table.  One might marvel that human beings had got to our current state of material prosperity and security –  let alone how our pioneers built a country that was once the richest on earth – without the aid of government financial literacy/capability strategies. And since when has a traditional Anglo reticence about matters of money been something for governments to try to change?   Better perhaps might be a focus on improving the financial capability of governments.

The Commission’s own research (p 26) shows what one might expect, people develop more “financial literacy” as they need it.  So-called “literacy” is low among young people (18% of 18-24 year old males are “high knowledge”), who don’t need it much.  It rises strongly during the working (child-rearing, mortgage etc) years (53% of 55-64 males are “high knowledge”), and then looks to tail off a little in retirement.  All of which is unsurprising, and (to me) unconcerning.

I know the so-called Commission for Financial Capability doesn’t cost that much money, but as I’m sure they would point out, every little counts.  The money they fritter away on national strategies and capabilities is money that New Zealanders don’t have to spend, or save, for themselves.

As an easy way into this, consider this US-government funded online quiz, a shop window for a US project on better understanding financial literacy.  I imagine that most readers of this blog will score 6/6, while the average American scores 3.  But then stand back and ask yourself why the average American (or New Zealander) needs to know the answers to these questions, phrased rather in the manner of a school economics exam.  People who read blogs like this take for granted a knowledge of the answers, but in what way has that knowledge made your life, or mine, better?

Back to 2020.  As ever, in the Sunday Star-Times articles there is no hint of what schools might sensibly cut back on to squeeze in more financial literacy teaching (or “money mojo” as a couple of middle-aged commentators suggest calling it).     It isn’t as if our core school academic results –  maths, English, science etc-  are so impressive that the marginal time would be a zero cost resource.  There are only so many hours in the day, weeks in the years, years in a school life.  And in recent years, schools have been told to add “digital literacy” to their teaching, they are about to be required to teach New Zealand history (something I generally welcome), and seem to devote ever more time to climate change issues (“all we ever heard about in social studies”, in the words of one of my kids).    And yet you’d have thought that binding budget constraints would have been one of the ideas anyone wanting to teach financial literacy would be conscious of themselves, and take seriously.

Similarly for all the talk in the articles about how tough life is, there is no hint of any recognition that (say) average labour productivity (the underpinning of average material living standards) even in underperforming New Zealand is now more than 50 per cent higher than it was when I left school.   And equally no hint of any recognition of the role governments –  the people who would be teaching “financial literacy” –  have played in the alarming underperformance of our economy.   There is some mention of housing challenges, but none of the conscious and deliberate choices governments made, and keep on making, to render decent houses all but unaffordable to young families in our larger cities.     Fix that at source and life (financially) would be a great deal easier for many of our lower income people.  But that would involve governments making good and responsible choices, not continuing to shred the prospects of each successive generation.     Even then, there would still be no obvious role for governments doing “financial literacy” education, but at least our governments might have a little more credibility as some fount of discipline and financial wisdom.

Parents do “financial literacy” all the time –  not necessarily in the words they use (some more reticent than others) but in the choices they make, and which kids see them making.  About consumption, about debt, about giving, about choice and opportunity cost, about budget constraints (if not in quite those words), about celebration (and self-denial), about partnership –  about casts of mind (extravagant, frugal or whatever).   We model –  often inadequately perhaps –  the values we encourage our kids to live by.   It is how society works, and always has.

And I’m quite sure I don’t want Jacinda Ardern, Chris Hipkins, Simon Bridges, Nikki Kaye (or the teachers’ unions) getting in the way with their corrosive views.  Rather better that the politicians focused on fixing the stuff that governments messed up in the first place.  I was having a sad conversation yesterday with my daughter, who asked if it was really true that houses had once cost less than $100000.   I had to explain briefly the idea of general inflation, but went on to tell her that when I was first house-hunting in 1985 I’d looked at several decent places priced at around $80000.   Adjust for the CPI and that would be around $230000 today, but try looking for a house in south Wellington for $230000 –  even one with 1985 type fittings, decor etc –  and you’ll be stiff out of luck. Even at twice that price it would be almost impossible.  That is deliberate government recklessness.

 

 

 

Slightly less-bad news

As foreshadowed earlier in the week, when Statistics New Zealand yesterday released the latest GDP numbers, there were also some quite significant revisions to the numbers for the last few years.  This happens every year at this time, reflecting the addition of various bits of data that are only available with quite long lags, and sometimes the use of new data sources.   My impression has been that these annual revisions have, at least in recent years, tended to revise up history, and it was clear from what SNZ had already told us that this year would be no exception.   (These revisions tend not to have any great implications for monetary policy –  inflation already is what it is whatever the statisticians belated tell us last year’s GDP was.)

This is the latest picture for annual growth in real GDP per capita.

sept 19 GDP 1

The various revisions suggests that per capita growth in real GDP for much of this decade hasn’t been too bad, averaging around 2 per cent from 2011 to 2017.   But (a) the preceding recession had been quite deep and long, and (b) the run of per capita growth looks pretty subdued when compared to what we saw for several years in the 90s and 00s.   More recently, annual growth in real GDP has fallen away to a point that no one should really be comfortable with.

But the data do bring some end of year good news (of sorts) for the Minister of Finance.   In Parliament on Wednesday he clarified that he was boasting that under this government annual growth in real GDP per capita had risen from 3rd worst in the OECD to only 5th worst in the OECD.  It seemed –  and still seems –  almost incomprehensible thing to boast about, especially when you and your leader have gone round the country boasting that we were doing better than most of our peers.   On those numbers, quite clearly we weren’t.

But as I noted when I wrote about this earlier in the week, the revisions were coming.    In both (calendar) 2017 and calendar 2018, growth in real GDP per capita was – so we are now told – 1.6 per cent (using an average of the production and expenditure GDP measures).    On those numbers, New Zealand’s growth would have been 26th in the OECD (of 36 members) in 2017, and 21st in 2018.       Even more of an improvement than the Minister claimed.   But…..in both cases still quite a bit worse than the median OECD country.  In other words, even in real per capita GDP terms, the gaps to the rest of the advanced world have widened and worsened, in both years under both governments (realistically of course, individual governments only have very limited impact on individual year outcomes).  And per capita growth has slowed this year.

What about (labour) productivity?  In my post on Wednesday I noted that the productivity numbers would be revised up and that the revision could be as large as 2 per cent.    On my preferred measure of real GDP per hour worked (using averages of the two GDP measures and two hours measures), the revision for calendar 2018 was exactly 2 per cent.   Here is how my regular chart looks with the old and new data shown.

GDP phw to sept 19

It is hardly stellar growth, but it is certainly better than nothing (“nothing” being roughly what the earlier data suggested we’d had for several years).   It lifts us just above Lithuania in this chart I showed the other day

OECD real GDP phw 2018

But that was data for 2018.   When I checked the productivity growth rates for Lithuania, Israel, the Czech Republic and Poland for the last few years, they were each materially faster than New Zealand’s (even with our data revisions).  Unless something pretty startling happens (a) in the Dec quarter data for New Zealand or (b)  there is a very sharp slowing in productivity growth in those other countries for 2019, it isn’t at all inconceivable that when the 2019 comparisons are available in the middle of next year, we could have slipped behind all four countries.

Bottomline?  There have been revisions upwards, and they should be unambiguously welcomed.      But we are starting a long way behind the group of advanced countries we typically like to compare ourselves too, and yet we have mediocre at best productivity growth and –  before the latest slowdown –  we have had per capita income growth less than that of the median advanced country.     We are still making no progress in closing those gaps, and often they are widening further.  That shouldn’t be a great surprise, given that our governments keep on with the same policy approaches that have failed to generate any reconvergence for the last 25+ years, failing to reverse the relative decline that began perhaps 70 years ago.    There is no light in that darkness.

This is my last post for the year. I’ll be back sometime around mid-January.  In the meantime Christmas wishes to my Christian readers –  celebrate the Incarnation (God made flesh) joyously –  and best wishes for the New Year to all.

I see that Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is (quite aptly) quoting Scripture today.  I’ll leave you with an extract with something more of Advent/Christmas theme, Mary’s song of praise,  recorded in Luke 2 and known as the Magnificat

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm.
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things.
And the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel
as he promised to our forefathers Abraham, and his seed forever.
Amen.

 

Reforming the RB: next steps

The government yesterday released a series of decisions as part of the next stage of the multi-year review of the Reserve Bank Act.   The decisions were in two classes: the first set around the governance of the institution are firm decisions now to embodied in draft legislation to be introduced (but not enacted) before the election, and the second set are in-principle decisions around prudential regulation and deposit insurance on which there is to be a further round of consultation next year.

On the latter set of proposals, I’m only going to comment briefly today.  There is one important decision I support –  a common framework for the prudential regulation of all deposit-takers (rather than separate ones for banks and for non-banks).   Much of the rest I’m fairly sceptical of:

  •  the decision to cap deposit insurance at $50000 is as flawed, and would prove as untenable in a crisis, as I warned in a post when the consultative document was released.  The proposed limit is well out of step with those in other advanced countries, notably Australia, and as I noted earlier “failing to get this right, ex ante simply increases the risk that when the crisis comes we’ll end up bailing out wholesale creditors (including foreign ones) too”,
  • the government is still toying with introducing statutory preference for depositors over other creditors.  This would be a mistake, and nowhere is it noted that it would tend to reinforce the advantage large banks tend to have locally in competing for retail deposits (since the small retail banks have little other funding to subordinate),
  • the in-principle decisions shift more policymaking powers out of the hands of elected people (the Minister of Finance) to unelected ones.

Remarkably, in the entire Cabinet paper there was no reference to the recent decision by the Governor to set minimum capital requirements for locally-incorporated banks well above international norms, even as the paper talked about a need for more, more-intensive, supervision in future.    As the Bank’s own favoured expert pointed out, there is usually something of a trade-off between the two, whether in how bridges are engineered or bank risk managed.

But my main focus was on the governance decisions, outlined in detail in the associated Cabinet paper.    Flicking through my hard copy, there are lots of specific and detailed points where I support the decisions being made (although specific legislative drafting may matter even there) and there are some general aspects that represent significant steps forward.  But if they proceed on governance as Cabinet has decided, we will end up with an unwieldy beast, mostly as a consequence of the government’s determination not to adopt the model used in a majority of advanced democracies (including small ones, and also notably Australia), in which monetary policy and financial system prudential regulation are conducted by two separate institutions.   And the existing democratic deficits will be worsened.

(I’m not sure if The Treasury has yet published the submissions that were made on the consultative document covering these issues. But in case anyone is looking, I did not make one.  That was solely because the morning I sat down to start writing one, in the week submissions closed, my mother died and so other things took priority.)

It is unambiguously good that the proposed new legislation will complete the work of reversing the key weakness of the 1989 Reserve Bank Act, in putting all the Bank’s powers in the hands of a single (unelected) official, complemented with provisions the rested on the naive assumption that it would be easy to tell if the Governor was not doing his/her job (mostly then about monetary policy) and that the Board would act in the public interest in thus holding the Governor to account.

We now already have an (anaemic) statutory Monetary Policy Committee –  feeble in construction and operation, and not very open or accountable, but it is better than nothing and in future it might evolve towards something good.  Under the proposed new legislation, all the remaining functions and powers of the Bank would become matters for the Board (a new one, the existing one would be dis-established), which could in turn delegate some of those powers to the Governor and other management as they chose.    And the Governor will not even be a member of the new Board – the intention is that it should be wholly non-executive, more akin to the model used in many Crown entities, including the FMA.

But there are a number of significant problems with what Cabinet has decided.

First, as the documents acknowledge, the Bank has extensive policymaking powers (that go far beyond those of most –  all? –  Crown entities) but decisions on those policies will be made wholly be non-elected (and thus not effectively accountable to the public) people.   There will be the figleaf in which the Governor and the Board are formally appointed by the Minister, but (a) the Minister will only have veto power and will (as now) only be able to appoint someone the Board has proposed, and (b) Board members could only be appointed from among those names proposed by a (statutory) nominating committee, including consultation with other political parties.

These models are quite out of step with how most other advanced countries appoint people to these key positions, where it is recognised that the elected government should be able to appoint people largely as they see fit (again, the model in Australia).  There has long been a substantial democratic deficit, but it is being further entrenched.  (The Cabinet paper notes that the nominating committee model is used for the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, but it is clearly and explicitly not a policymaking body.)     These models might be satisfactory if the powers of the Bank were operational and implementational only –  where one wants to ensure that ministers can’t influence decisions regarding application of rules to specific individuals or institutions –  but not when it involves major, highly contentious, policy decisions (such as the recent bank capital decisions, or the use of LVR or DTI restructions).  My own preference –  and I note that the National Party has spoken in these terms as well –  would be for the major regulatory policymaking powers to be reserved to the (elected) Minister and Parliament, leaving the practical implementation of policy in operationally independent hands.  There is no sign in the Cabinet paper (or in the earlier consultative document) that such an option was even seriously looked at.

So further entrenchment of the lack of effective democratic control of major areas of policy –  where, pace Paul Tucker, there is no general agreement on policy models, how to assess success, and where there are significant distributional effects –  is a significant (apparently deliberate) weakness.

But the other is an apparently irresolvable tension between the sorts of skills and people required from Board members.  The new Board’s day job will be the goverance and overall responsibility for the Bank in all areas other than those that are the responsibility of the Monetary Policy Committee.   That includes regulation of deposit-takers and insurers, operation of securities settlement systems, foreign reserves management, and all the standard corporate functions.  Given that documents talk of requiring people to have appropriate skills, you will presumably be expecting to see a standard mix of lawyers and accountants with some sort of banking and regulatory flavour.  Given their policy making powers, you sort of hope there are some serious policy people.

But these people are also to be primarily responsible for the appointment of the Governor, for the appointment of the other Monetary Policy Committee members, for things like the MPC Code of Conduct, for issues around resource allocation for monetary policy, and (I think) still for holding the MPC to account.  The sort of people who would be likely to be well-equipped to make those sort of choices, decisions, and recommendations are unlikely to overlap very much with the sort of people you might expect on a Board primarily focused on the regulation of deposit-takers and insurers.    It is simply flawed model, only compounded by the risks around lack of clarity over who has control over precisely what, particularly in a crisis or a new era of unconventional monetary policy instruments.

A better model would simply have made the Minister (and Cabinet) directly responsible for all statutory appointments (Governor, MPC members, Board members), but the much more sensible model would have been to have spun out the regulatory functions into a New Zealand Prudential Regulatory Agency (with policymaking powers reverting to the Minister), and allowing both a monetary policy focused central bank and the NZPRA to develop their own cultures of excellence and specialisation, with much greater clarity as to who is responsible for what.

The other unfortunate choice I wanted to highlight today was around funding the Reserve Bank. I have no particular problem with allowng for levies to partially fund the prudential functions.  But I do have a problem with the main Bank funding continuing to be secured through the Funding Agreement model.   I wrote about that in a couple of posts –  one at the time the last Funding Agreement was approved and the other in 2018 as the current review process was kicking off.  The Funding Agreement model is (a) voluntary, (b) hardly transparent at all, and (c) perpetuates the myth that “the Reserve Bank is different”.   Sure, we want operational choices at arms-length from politicians, but we nonetheless fund Police (for example) by means of annual parliamentary appropriation, one of the cornerstones of parliamentary control in our system of government.

It is bad enough that the Funding Agreement model is being retained (with some modifications, the details of which I might come back to when we have a bill) but what shocked me was the announcement that the government intends to legislate to remove the current requirement that any Funding Agreement must secure parliamentary ratification.     The only grounds they seem to offer for this is that “parliamentary ratification impedes flexibility” but (a) they could readily have moved to shorter terms for funding agreements, and (b) most agencies operate, rightly, with annual appropriations, approved each and every year by Parliament.  Generally, governments can’t spend what Parliament has not appropriated.  There is simple no good reason why the Reserve Bank –  a powerful policymaking agency (not just a referee –  like the courts –  or a detailed implementation body) –  should be any different.

I may well have further comments on these and other issues next year, including when the bill is presented and is open for select committee scrutiny.  But my summary position is that whatever good aspects there are in what Cabinet has decided, it is –  a bit like the new MPC system –  a lost opportunity to have created a so much better system, including one more open, more accountable, and without such gaping democratic deficits.  In both cases, although on paper the Governor will be materially weaker than he was under the 1989 Act, in practice it is likely that a wily Governor will be almost as powerful as ever.  That leaves us too vulnerable to poor or mediocre Governors (real stars will shine whatever the governance structure).

One aspect of the Bank still up in the air is the appointment of the chair and deputy chair of the current Board (and realistically the current legislation is likely to be on the books until at least mid-2021 even if the current government is returned).  The Board terms of both the chair (Neil Quigley) and the deputy chair (Kerrin Vautier) expires on 31 January and 8 February respectively.  Both will have already served the customary maximum of two full five year terms on the Board.  And under the legislative amendments last year not only does the Minister get to appoint Board members but (appropriately) he now gets to appoint the chair and deputy chair.    It will be interesting to see what choices he makes.  He could simply reappoint Quigley and Vautier to see out the current functions of the Board, but the Board is widely regarded as having done a poor job, and it isn’t obvious that after 10 years plus on the old Board you’d expect them to be the people to lead the new Board after the new legislation.   A better call would be to appoint as chair someone whom the Minister would regard as a credible candidate to the chair the new-look regulatory-focused corporate-like Board as well, and thus to oversee the transition (although that option is complicated by the timing: if the current government lost office any reforms might proceed rather differently).

 

 

Deputy Governor talking up the economy

On Friday afternoon a reader sent through a copy of a Bloomberg story quoting Geoff Bascand, Deputy Governor, on the health of the New Zealand economy.    As reported, it was pretty upbeat to say the least.   But the foundations for such an upbeat tone seemed more akin to sand than to solid rock.  Storms expose houses built on sand.

This was the opening section of the article

New Zealand’s central bank doesn’t expect its new bank capital rules to present a headwind for the economy, which looks to be near the point of entering a recovery, Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand said.

“We don’t expect major economic impacts” from banks raising their capital buffers, Bascand said in an interview Friday in Wellington. Furthermore, latest developments are “supportive of the story that we’re near or around that turning point” in the economic cycle, he said.

Bascand had been interviewed by Bloomberg’s local reporter, Matthew Brockett, following the announcement on Thursday of the final bank capital decisions: very big increases in required bank capital ratios, even if some portion of that can be met a bit more cheaply than the Governor’s initial proposal had envisaged.  So I guess we should expect spin.  Bascand’s day job is as the senior manager responsible for financial stability, banking regulation etc.  All the advice and the documents published on Thursday emerged from his wing of the Bank.  But he is also a statutory member of the Monetary Policy Committee, with personal responsibility –  with his colleagues –  for actual delivering inflation rates near target, something the Bank hasn’t managed for years now.  For most of that time, the Bank has been consistently too optimistic about the economy, and about the prospects for getting inflation back to target (fluctuating around the target midpoint, perhaps especially in core inflation terms).

I guess the characterisation “doesn’t expect its new bank capital rules to present a headwind for the economy” is the journalist’s, and there is quite a lot of leeway in Bascand’s own words: “we don’t expect major economic impacts”.  If “major” here means “singlehandedly tip the economy into recession” then I suspect everyone would agree, but that shouldn’t be the standard.   The Bank’s own numbers tell us that they think the base level of GDP –  absent crises –  will be lower as a result of the change in the capital rules.  And their modelling effort focuses on the long-term, not the transition.  The headline out of last week’s announcement was that the transition period had been stretched out, from five years in the consultative document to seven years.  But (a) in making decisions now, and in the next couple of years, people will sensibly factor in changes in the regulatory environment that have already been announced (and are final, in the Governor’s words) –  expectations matter, as the Bank often (and rightly) tells us, with its monetary policy hat on and (b) for the big banks a significant chunk of the policy change is frontloaded, because the change in rules to increase risk-weighted assets calculated using internal models to 90 per cent of what would be calculated using the standardised rules happens right at the start.  That change alone is equivalent to a 20 per cent increase in minimum capital.

And it isn’t as if there are no hints of effects already, even before the final decisions were made.  The Governor and Deputy Governor clearly prefer to avoid addressing these data, but the Bank’s own credit conditions survey showed not only that credit conditions (a) have already been tightening, (b) are expected to continue tightening, and (c) respondents ascribe much of that effect to the impact of regulatory changes.

credit 4

Perhaps the banks were just making it up when they responded to this survey?  Perhaps, but the Bank was happy to cite either components of the survey in its recent FSR, just not these awkward ones.

And why wouldn’t much higher capital requirements, in a world where there is no full MM offset (as the Bank itself recognises), no full or immediate scope for disintermediation to entities/channels not subject to the Bank’s rules, constrain credit availability to some extent, especially in the early stages of a multi-year transition period?   And, as the Bank also keeps telling us, the availability of credit is one of lubricants to economic activity.  If credit isn’t as readily available, all else equal economic growth is likely to be dented.

And what about Bascand’s other big claim that indicators are

“supportive of the story that we’re near or around that turning point” in the economic cycle,

Count me sceptical.     At best, what we’ve seen so far might support the possibility of an inflection point.  If you want a nice summary, with charts, I thought last week’s ANZ economics weekly was about right.

It is worth remembering just how subdued economic growth rates have been this decade –  headline, not even per capita –  and that the slowing has been underway for several years.

GDP growth

On the home front, business confidence and related measure seem to have bounced a bit, but aren’t outside the range we’ve seen over the last couple of years  (when actual growth has been falling and low).   Some agricultural products prices are doing very well, but (a) surely the best estimate is that many of these lifts will be shortlived, and (b) debt overhangs and tightening credit constraints locally will limit the extent to which near-term income gains materially increase activity.  Bascand makes quite a bit of the promise of fiscal stimulus, but recall that on the Treasury fiscal impulse indicator there was a fairly substantial fiscal stimulus in the year to June 2019, and growth was low and slowing.

And that is before we start on the rest of the world.  Here is an ANZ chart of growth in world trade and industrial production

ANZ trade

Data out of Europe, Australia, and the PRC (the latter two being the largest New Zealand export markets) have remained pretty downbeat, even as sentiment ebbs and flows at the margin.  The latest Chinese export data offered little encouragement,  And there isn’t much optimism about the US either, with a considerable chunk of US forecasters expecting a recession in the next two years.   And all this against a backdrop in which people (markets in particular) know that there are quite severe limits on how much macro policy can do if a new serious downturn happens.  That alone is likely to engender caution.

The TWI doesn’t move independently of all these domestic and foreign influences, but it is worth noting that it is now a bit higher than it was when the Bank surprised everyone with their 50 basis point OCR cut in August.

TWI dec 19

Perhaps time will prove the Deputy Governor right, but at present I’d suggest his claims should be taken with a considerable pinch of salt.  Things probably aren’t getting worse right now, but it seems heroic –  against the backdrop of both domestic and foreign constraints and headwinds (including those capital changes) to be talking up the idea of a turning point in the economy.    And rather concerning if this is the sort of sentiment shaping the Bank’s monetary policy thinking right now, after a decade in which things have kept disappointing on the downside.   It doesn’t have that “whatever it takes” sound about it, of which we heard quite a bit in the wake of the August OCR cut.  It sounds more like the sort of spin we hear repeatedly from the Minister of Finance and Prime Minister, who go on endlessly about headline GDP growth rates here and abroad, and never once mention how much faster population growth is here than in most advanced countries.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the sudden mysterious, but very welcome, appearance of inflation expectations as a factor in the Bank’s storytelling about policy.    For a few weeks the Governor was outspoken in his desire to act boldly to boost inflation expectations, and do what he could to minimise the risk of hitting lower bound constraints in the next downturn.

And then, like the morning mist, all that concern was gone again –  totally absent in the presentation of the latest MPS.   If anything, inflation expectations measures had fallen a bit further from August to November.

I don’t typically pay much attention to the Reserve Bank’s survey measure of household inflation expectations.  Neither, I expect, do they.  But it has been running for a long time now, and the latest numbers –  finally released late last month – look as though they should be a bit troubling for the Bank.

household expecs 19

This series is nowhere near as volatile as the ANZ’s household expectations survey (although, for what it is worth, recent observations in that series have also been pretty low).   It began in the far-flung days when the inflation target was 0 to 2 per cent (centred on 1 per cent) and yet this is the first time ever that household year ahead inflation expectations (median measure) have dropped below 2 per cent.  At one level, that might be welcome –  the series has historically had quite an upward bias –  but when household expectations are converging towards professional and market expectations, and all those are below the 2 per cent target midpoint it shouldn’t be a matter of comfort at all.    This is the sort of drop the Governor claimed (at least in August and September) he was trying to prevent.   In the same survey, respondents are also asked whether they expect inflation to rise, fall, or stay the same over the next year (probably easier to answer than a point estimate).  There too respondents have become less confident that inflation is going to pick up.

For a brief period a few months ago it looked as though the Bank, and the Governor, were really taking seriously the challenges we face, in a context where conventional monetary policy just does not have much more leeway.  More recently, they seem more interested in talking things up again –  keeping pace with the political rhetoric, and perhaps playing defence re the bank capital changes.  A more realistic tone would offer a better chance of getting through tough times with as little damage as possible, including by better preparing firms and households for the risks that arise if the global downturn intensifies, with little monetary policy leeway, the risk of significant policy-induced tightening in credit conditions, and inflation (and particularly at present inflation expectations) falling away.

We are getting very late in the business cycle and we’d be better served by a strongly counter-cyclical central bank, rather than one playing defence for its own (deeply flawed) other policies, and whistling to keep spirits up (and political masters, making decisions about the future of the Bank, happy).  With the sort of mindset on display at present they risk being blindsided by events, in a context where –  as the Governor himself put it only a few months ago –  the costs and consequences of being wrong the other way (inflation gets to say 2.3 per cent) are pretty slight and inconsequential after a decade of such low inflation.