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Colin James on the asset sales referendum & Nats’ economic record

Written By: - Date published: 10:25 am, September 10th, 2013 - 17 comments
Categories: assets, Economy, national, privatisation - Tags:

Colin James takes on Key over the asset sales referendum, savaging the economic argument for sales. Then he turns to National’s other big financial markets call – suspending contributions to the Cullen Fund James discovers its cost us a lot of money. What James doesn’t recognise is that asset sales and suspending the Cullen Fund payments were never about what’s best for NZ.

[this article isn't online yet, I think it goes up on the ODT at some point]

….Key has been underestimating, too: understating the democratic place of the asset sales referendum. He said last Monday: “We have held a referendum. It is called a general election”. That is, in Key’s mind, voters approved selling assets because he said he would and that promise was a high-profile campaign issue.

Actually, Key got a mandate to govern, not specifically sell assets. Opinion polls consistently found big majorities against selling. Key’s mandate was despite asset sales, not for them.

Key’s impatience reflects a discomfort in the public sphere. Deals (in private) get things done. Democracy (by definition public) is messy: the referendum will be a “waste of money”. When Key’s party legislated citizens referendums in 1993 it made them non-binding.

Democracy does waste money and time. A byproduct, Key neglects to add, is liberty.

Key said asset sales opponents will be more likely to vote than supporters. Not necessarily, if he campaigned hard for his case. But he could validly argue that asset sales are no longer a “third-rail” issue, one that kills a government. People disagree with much a government does but still agree it should govern. Asset sales are in this class.

But are they good policy? Are they good business? Do they tell us English — idolised by Australian business even more than Key — has business and finance acumen?

When it came to the point this year the government had three arguments: that sales would deepen the sharemarket and entice some small investors in (yes, to a limited extent), that private ownership would toughen up the management (marginal at most because the electricity companies have been well run) and that raising money for capital projects by selling assets is better than borrowing on global markets (actually, so far global interest rates have been low and the electricity companies have been paying good dividends).

So far, not a pass mark for English.

James is right – the referendum will be our chance to give National a mark on its asset sales to date and a warning of the electoral consequences if they continue.

How has he gone on investment? He suspended contributions (till 2020) to the Superannuation Fund, arguing it was silly to borrow to invest.

That’s not how it has turned out. In the past five years, which includes the global financial and Eurozone crises, the super fund earned an average 7.4 per cent a year, well above the 3.16 per cent average Treasury bill rate and above the 6 per cent coupon interest on 2021 10-year government bonds. In the past three years the fund averaged 16.8 per cent (Treasury bills 2.6 per cent) and in the 2012-13 year it earned a stunning 25.8 per cent.

Also, the fund paid English $1.6 billion tax over the past three years. Had he gone on investing $2.5 billion or so a year he would have got even more tax. And the fund would have added to the $1 billion it has so far put into the local sharemarket, providing capital for business.

In December aiCIO magazine called it the world’s most innovative sovereign wealth fund.

There is an irony here: English’s wrong investment call (so far) on the super fund fits the National adage that politicians (and bureaucrats) should not play at business.

Moreover, the fund is a public, not a private, entity. Its success challenges the “private good/public bad” theorem which underlines one of the asset sales rationales. In fact, the public and private spheres are inextricably mixed. Voters know that. And they want the electricity companies kept public…

The fact is, National didn’t choke the Cullen Fund or go ahead with asset sales because those moves make economic sense. It is and was about ideology. Unlike voters, who are sensible, National has a hard and fast belief that the government shouldn’t be involved in the economy, and that’s why they do dumb things.

17 comments on “Colin James on the asset sales referendum & Nats’ economic record”

  1. tricledrown 1

    If not for thr cullen fund nationals books would mean they would be very unpopular .
    If contributions had continued NZs future would be brighter lowers taxes in the future.
    Now with no divedends from assets and prefunding the baby boom.
    We now have higher health and retirement funding required.
    So something has got to be cut only the very wealthy will have a
    Decent retirement.
    As the cult of greed will be pushed on to the younger generations who won’t to pay higher taxes to cover the shortfall that national are deliberatly leaving!
    All Nactional are interested in is stealing our future!
    By taking away our longterm investments handing them cheaply to their mates!

  2. Enough is Enough 2

    I completley agree.

    We often critique Natioanl’s performance against our own values and rationale belief system. The fact that they fail every time on those measures is of absolutley no concern or consequence to them.

    They never came in hoping to better this country for New Zealanders.

    They came in to do exactly what they have. Sell us down the river to their rich mates.

    I would give them 9.8 out of 10 for doing exactly what they were put in government to do by their pay masters.

    The left should learn from the Nats about how to serve one’s key supporters. When we return to goverment we should tell big business to go and go jump in the lake. Just like National has to the workers.

  3. Draco T Bastard 3

    National have a hard and fast belief that they and their rich mates should own everything so that they and their rich mates can live as parasites on everyone else while also commanding what what everyone else does. Government ownership and democracy takes that away from them and they don’t like that and will do everything in their power to keep such a paradigm in place. They really do want to take us back to feudalism with them as the aristocrats.

  4. Craig Glen viper 5

    The sad thing JH you have hit the nail on the head taking more of the pie for them and their mates is the agenda. Its interesting that those in big business are the ones that cheer them on even though they show time and time agaian that National damage the economy, but when you see the big chunks of capital National throw their way its no wonder.

    • Akldnut 5.1

      It’s little wonder Aussies treasurer in waiting Richard Cranium is using Blinglish as a role model saying “You’re heading in the right direction, and we’re heading in the wrong direction at the moment.” and praising the NZ economy

      • Barry 5.1.1

        Key promised to have NZ wages catch up to Australia. Then did nothing to make it happen.

        He knew that all he would have to do is wait a bit then they would get a government that would use the same policy and their wages would come back to ours.

        Look for Australia’s unemployment to go up and wages stagnate and the Liberals will blame Labor.

  5. Tracey 6

    as a trader key always knew that you dont stop investing when the price drops… you buy regularly so as to even out the highs and lows. he ignored this simple premise relied upon by all brokers and traders.

    my kiwisaver fund is up well over the bank dep rate since 2008. average of 12% a year.

    given people laud the pms ability as a trader this seems a rookie mistake.

  6. swan 7

    The whole argument around opinion polls being against asset sales is, I think, a red herring. I wonder what the result would be of a poll asking “do you support GST at 12.5% or 15%” or “Do you support income tax rates of x or y? Or “Would you support a cut to petrol tax”? Or “Are you in favour of higher or lower rates?” Or “Are you in favour of 12 months paid parental leave”. Or “Are you in favour of free public transport”?

    All such questions (including asset sales question) are meaningless on their own without a broader discussion of revenue, govt spending, the govt balance sheet, etcetera.

    • Draco T Bastard 7.1

      A good point which is, of course, why the facts need to be made available – oh, that’s right, they have been – they show that selling our state assets makes us worse off.

    • Murray Olsen 7.2

      Aww swan, the government regularly asks the obscenity which has replaced the Business Round Table what they think of the rates of GST and income tax. What you wanted to say is that only the very rich should have a say. Be honest.

  7. swan 8

    I find the comments on the Cullen fund interesting. It is very easy to look at things ex post facto. The fact is NZ has come through the GFC very well. It is better to be safe that sorry.

    • Draco T Bastard 8.1

      And that’s got to be one of the most thoughtless comments yet:

      It is very easy to look at things ex post facto.

      even at the time that National cut funding for the Cullen Fund it was pointed out that the return from it exceeded the costs of government borrowing.

      The fact is NZ has come through the GFC very well.

      Actually we haven’t and we would have done a hell of a lot better if this government hadn’t gone round cutting taxes, cutting investment and then rewarding the rich with taxpayers money for being rich.

      It is better to be safe that sorry.

      Cliche is meaningless drivel.

  8. swan 9

    “even at the time that National cut funding for the Cullen Fund it was pointed out that the return from it exceeded the costs of government borrowing.”

    Always would except maybe at the height of a bull market. The issue is one of risk.

    “Actually we haven’t”

    Relative to which OECD country has NZ done so badly against?

    “Cliche is meaningless drivel.”

    Pardon? Got any manners? I am referring to risk. That is the issue here.

    • GregJ 9.1

      Quite a lot – we continue to be in the lower third for GDP per Capita & GDP Growth & in quite a lot of the other measures put out by the OECD. In 2011 Growth was below the OECD Average (1/1% vs 1.9%). You can find lots of the details here.

      Yes we survived the first few years of the Global Depression in better shape than many, mainly because the fundamentals of the New Zealand Economy inherited by National were relatively sound. However since then the economy has languished and is being out-paced. National’s laissez-faire economic management & increase in public debt (principally to fund tax cuts as opposed to fund significant long term infrastructure & other economic activity) have continued to drag on the economy.

      From the Summary of the 2013 OECD Report

      “The New Zealand economy is beginning to gain some momentum, with post‑earthquake reconstruction, business investment and household spending gathering pace. Risks to growth remain, however, stemming from high private debt levels, weak foreign demand, large external imbalances, volatile terms of trade, a severe drought and an exchange rate that appears overvalued. The main structural challenge will be to create the conditions that encourage resources to shift towards more sustainable sources of prosperity. Incomes per head are well below the OECD average, and productivity growth has been sluggish for a long time. Lifting living standards sustainably and equitably will require structural reforms to improve productivity performance and the quality of human capital.”

      So even the OECD is “lukewarm” on NZ. At best we are “treading water” – it wouldn’t take much to drown as any bouyancy from Labour’s economic management has long since disappeared.

    • Draco T Bastard 9.2

      Got any manners?

      It’s not my fault you’re so stupid as to write a comment that made absolutely no sense and then finish it with a cliche.

      I am referring to risk.

      And this government is running a far higher risk than any other country in the OECD as shown by state asset sales and cutting taxes for the rich which is putting NZ in much greater debt.

  9. Sable 10

    We’ve held a referendum, its called an election. That pretty much characterises the arrogance of NZ politician’s (not that they are alone in this). Get voted in and then do what you like. Guess what shithead it doesn’t work like that as you may find out this coming election with any luck.

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