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Being stupid on the economy

Written By: - Date published: 10:02 am, February 23rd, 2009 - 20 comments
Categories: economy, employment, wages, workers' rights - Tags:

Brian Fallow  has some extraordinarily good analysis of the economic situation in his piece today. Here’s some important passages (and my, unfortunately, extensive comments):

“We are really talking about two recessions back to back,” AXA Global Investors chief economist Bevan Graham said. “Last year it was a domestic one, that we needed to have. There were excesses in the housing market and consumption that needed to be worked out. But then we get hit by this global storm.”

We had a very strong period of growth from 1999 to 2007. While policy was part of the reason for this (Labour’s full employment policy, for example, bedded in high domestic demand) there was an underlying demographic reality – the baby-boomers have been middle aged for the last decade, this means they’ve been at their peak earnings without dependents and looking to build a retirement nest-egg. And what’s safer than houses?

The wealth effect created by all this investment in housing added to high employment and high wage growth to fuel demand, which added inflationary pressure (leading to higher interest rates) and caused the trade balance to worsen as we imported more. You’ll recall that during this period National was demanding Labour throw more fuel on the fire through tax cuts, which would just have been more inflationary, while at the same time complaining that interest rates were too high because the Reserve Bank was trying to contain inflation. The real solution would have been to try to deflate the housing bubble and the accompanying wealth effect early and slowly with a capital gains tax on second homes but neither National nor Labour would go there. They were fixated on keeping the good times rolling forever. But you can’t remain at above-trend growth forever, eventually there needs to be a correction, and although that point had been put off both by good fortune and Labour policy a small, short recession primarily caused by the collapse of the housing bubble (and the drought and oil prices) was inevitable.

“For much of last year it was hoped that by now the economy would be in an export-led recovery. Instead world trade is shrinking.”

Unfortunately, the rest of the developed world had also been in a long-term boom and it came to a crashing halt with the collapse of other housing bubbles and record prices for oil and commodities (the relationship between the commodities spike and the housing collapse will be an interesting topic of study for economists). The global finance sector was greedily geared towards permanent boom times. When things started to go bad, people couldn’t afford their mortgage payments which underpinned the value of trillions in investments. The finance sector went into meltdown sending the broader world economy into recession (we had earlier seen something similar on a small scale with the collapse of finance companies here).

In theory, with low interest rates, a lower dollar, lower house prices, ‘spare capacity’ in the labour market, and stimulus from Labour’s tax cuts and 2008 Budget spending, we should be set for recovery but the international situation, particularly the shortage of credit and falling demand for our exports is blocking that. Instead, all the money we borrowed from overseas on the back of the housing wealth effect so we could buy more imports leaves us dangerously exposed now the lending has dried up, and we have a negative wealth effect from people seeing the value of their assets (houses, shares) fall. This is leading to more people becoming unemployed.

“The year started with 105,000 people or 4.6 per cent of the workforce unemployed. Forecasters expect it to be closer to 7 per cent by the end of the year [the New Zelaand Insitute is saying up to 11.2%]. Every percentage point increase represents around 23,000 people. The effects spread beyond those who lose a job or cannot find one, and their families. The fear of losing their jobs encourages people to spend less and reduce debt or build up precautionary savings. The risk is a vicious circle where cautious consumers spend less, leading businesses to invest less and employ fewer people, leading to a further contraction in spending.”

We need to head off this secondary round of contraction by stopping unemployment reaching high levels (the current 4.6% is still lower than we ever had between 1987 and 2003 but hours worked are falling sharply). That’s what the rest of the world is trying to do with massive stimulus programs like the trillion dollars and more the US, the EU, and China are each injecting into their economies this year and next. It might work (frankly, if those economies do start to grow as a result of their packages, I suspect it’ll just spark another oil spike, slamming the world back into recession). What won’t work is doing nothing, which is essentially what National is doing – sure it has moved forward by a year or two a few roading projects but it also reduced its tax package, slashed Kiwisaver and R&D tax credits, has signalled spending and wage freezes for the public sector, and made only a token increase to the minimum wage, all of which are de-stimulatory compared to business as usual.

During the election campaign, Helen Clark said her focus if re-elected would be “jobs, jobs, jobs” and the new Government has picked up the mantra. But we’ve yet to see any action; any actual net stimulus to create jobs. It would be straining optimism to the point of foolishness to expect anything out of this week’s Jobs Summit but something needs to happen and it needs to happen quickly. While the rest of the world works over-time to protect their economies, we’re sitting on our hands and watching the jobs evaporate.

20 comments on “Being stupid on the economy ”

  1. ieuan 1

    A capital gains tax on property would be very unpopular. A better option to slow down the housing bubble would have been to phase out the tax incentives that exist for negatively geared property.

  2. which also would have been unpopular. but I agree that would also have been an option.

    It’s often forgotten that only 8% of people have investment properties, but they are wealthy baby-boomers, so they punch above their weight politically. Both Labour and Natioanl too desperate to get their votes.

  3. Rich 3

    How many property investors would every contemplate voting Labour? 0.1%?

    If Labour had brought in housing market deflation measures in ’06, they’d probably have lost the election, but that happened anyway. They might have even done better if National voters had been flushed out of the country.

  4. djp 4

    Steve: Where does the govt get its money to “create” jobs?

    If it takes money from the productive to create jobs for the unproductive then our economy as a whole will be less productive.

    “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

    It is also amusing to note that you give Labour credit for strong growth in 1999 to 2007.. do they get any credit for 2008 and beyond?

  5. djp. I didn’t give Labour credit, I said they had a minor positive effect – the underlying causes of the long period of growth are far bigger than New Zealand and economic policy, it comes down to demographics. And I know you’re desperate to blame Labour for the recession but you’re dreaming the ideologue’s dream.

    The Government can raise revenue by borrowing at low sovereign rates or by raising government income. Everyone else is borrowing and we can afford to do some borrowing too, if we spend the moeny wisely, we’ll create a better economy in the end to pay off the debt, rather than just sitting on our hands while things get worse.

    I love the ‘it ain’t real’ quote marks you put around ‘create’, you better rush off and tell every economist in the world that they’ve got it wrong.

  6. “If it takes money from the productive to create jobs for the unproductive then our economy as a whole will be less productive.”

    This is such a poor piece of reasoning I’m not going to deal with it but I quote it merely so others can gaze on it and think ‘there but for the grace of God go I’

  7. Matthew Pilott 7

    How many property investors would every contemplate voting Labour? 0.1%?

    Rich, you have missed the latest talking points. Landlords are not wealthy people, they’re just ordinary people trying to get by. At least that was the angle when we were all talking about tenant v landlord legal contracts.

    Now that we’re talking about something else, they’re all ‘property developers’?

    Umm… and you do realise that property developers err…develop… property and sell it, don’t you?

  8. Pascal's bookie 8

    Steve, you forget that ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ are permanent states. They are things inherent to a person. People are either leeches or randian supermen (even if they are womenz!).

    A equals A’ etc ad funking nauseum.

    When you forget this you run the risk that the productive will get sick of the society that has enabled their productivity, and run off and form a glorious new society where they can all sit around being fabulously wealthy together, swapping real estate, doing each others hair, having sex on beds of banknotes and sneering at how much the rest of miss us them. It’s all right there in the bibble. Atlas Shags.

    To which I can only say, please. No one’s a stopping ya.

  9. Matthew Pilott 9

    PB – hilarious…

  10. ropata 10

    My friends were burned by artificially inflated house prices, they bought a cheap place with a “welcome home” loan for $200K. I reckon its true value in the current market is $150K. They only have an average income with 2 kids and mum only working part time. They are stuck with a 30 year mortgage based on the faulty assumption that house prices would inflate for eternity and they could sell at any time. The speculation and greed and property mania would have been GREATLY reduced by removal of the sacred property tax advantages. NZ governments need “the guts to do what’s right” for those disadvantaged by a heavily tilted playing field.

  11. Around 50 million jobs have evaporated globally in the last year.
    In the US over half a million jobs disappear every month at the moment.
    Over 10.000 people a day go into foreclosure every day.

    To think that NZ can get by with minor job creation projects is laughable.

    As to the fairytale that NZ went to a little recession followed up by the global tsunami is even more ridiculous. the first signs of recession in NZ where directly related to the global collapse we are now witnessing. Just because most Kiwi’s where not aware of it happening doesn’t mean it didn’t.

    The global economy started to tip over in early 2007 and showed in New Zealand in the rise of the dollar against the US dollar as speculators used their money in the NZ dollar and the Iceland dollar to make quick profits while the economy started to tank. That made export more difficult putting the breaks on the NZ economy.

    You guys perhaps don’t remember a wood mill going under as the result of the strength of the NZ dollar and the downturn of building projects being commissioned in the US but it went down in 2007 and it was one of the first victims of the US collapse.

    This is a quote from John Key’s speech at the APEC top about cheap foreign credit flooding New Zealand in the last 10-15 years:

    Over the past decade or so the global economy was fuelled by a private sector credit boom (Banks of course are private sector) made possible by a combination of large macroeconomic imbalances with and between economies, relatively low global inflation, new waves of financial innovation, and huge amounts of leveraging by hedge-funds and other financial institutions.

    Macro economic imbalances is John Key’s speciality of course. It’s called gabling with currencies and manipulating the imbalances between them to make loads of money. Not only that, according to this interview John Key was running the department responsible for all these flashy new financial instruments and Merrill Lynch was one of the first to see the importance of big secretive hedgefund manipulations of which John Key was well aware

    (Key explains: “I had a whole lot of people working for me who were at the cutting edge of delivering quite complex and new and innovative products. They tended to either be a new product or into a new market, usually the emerging markets, Russia, Brazil, Argentina. I wasn’t the guy sitting there dreaming it all up, but I was the guy who was responsible for those people.” Did he foresee the problems which resulted in the sub-prime crisis? “Was it hard to predict? Not really.”)

    according to this interview.

    Next he goes on saying:

    Again, New Zealand’s case is illustrative. We have in recent years experienced a housing market boom built on easy credit. (Not on increased population, decrease of housing or increase of wages, the normal real world economic parameters which control the value of a scarce resource but cheap money, at least that what our golden boy himself says)

    For well over a decade a glut of global credit created an illusion of almost limitless liquidity that in turn fuelled an unsustainable credit boom. This capital was mainly sourced from offshore.(I rest my case, Our golden boy knew full well what was fuelling our unsustainable house prices)

    The result of these seemingly unlimited foreign-capital flows was that New Zealanders were able to rely on cheap fixed-rate debt, which in turn drove house prices ever higher.

    This is an interesting remark of course. John Key was working in Wall street where all cheap credit originates from and his bank was one of three collapsing as a result of it’s irresponsible gambling in derivatives. Oh, oops the same derivatives trade John Key ran for Merrill Lynch.

    And here is another one:

    While the Reserve Bank worked hard to lean against these trends, the credit glut weighed against our Reserve Bank’s power to contain demand through monetary policy adjustments.

    Many of you will have had similar experiences. As a result, governments and central banks around the world are turning their minds to what they can do to prevent, or at least alleviate, such soaring booms, and their resulting busts, in the future.

    So while the Reserve bank tried to stop the totally out of control and not based on real increases in value housing boom John Key and his mates happilly flooded the market with cheap money, bubbling away and this is what John Key ends with:

    So now the party is over and the taxpayers of the world are left to underwrite – in one form or another – the liabilities and obligations of banks and, by extension, their hedge-fund clientele.

    For those of you interested in more of his thoughtful gems here is the whole speech

  12. Sorry, about the length of the previous comment.

    I just get so angry when John Key spells his role in and knowledge about the pending disaster out and nobody of our esteemed fourth estate has the gumption to ask the man some serious questions.

    Someone please just please let me at him.

  13. Pat 13

    John Key must be the worlds greatest ever evil mastermind if he can single-handedly set in motion the downfall of the global financial system some 6 or 7 years in advance, then hide away in a small country’s political system waiting to seize power when his plans come to fruition.

    His fall down the stairs and clumsy dancing with Tras-sexuals was all designed to mask his evil cunning.

    Maybe his arm wasn’t even broken at all.

  14. djp 14


    The Government can raise revenue by borrowing at low sovereign rates or by raising government income. Everyone else is borrowing and we can afford to do some borrowing too, if we spend the moeny wisely, we’ll create a better economy in the end to pay off the debt, rather than just sitting on our hands while things get worse.

    So we are facing govt debt of 30+ percent of GDP or something right.. so the solution is to borrow more to get out of debt?

    I love the ‘it ain’t real’ quote marks you put around ‘create’, you better rush off and tell every economist in the world that they’ve got it wrong.

    Yeah I love it too :), why dont you appeal to logic instead of authority? For every job the the govt “creates” they take a job away from some other sector. Somebody has to pay the bill for that new job, and that somebody now cannot fund a job that would actually have benefited him.

    “If it takes money from the productive to create jobs for the unproductive then our economy as a whole will be less productive.’

    This is such a poor piece of reasoning I’m not going to deal with it but I quote it merely so others can gaze on it and think ‘there but for the grace of God go I’

    If you do that too often I might start to suspect you are dodging the point… if it is totally stupid then you ought to be able to point holes in my logic easy enough, come on!

  15. Pat,

    I make no such suggestion. John Key did not set the global collapse in motion. He was however very much part of the investment banker class that did. IAs the quotes from some of his speeches and interviews show but I understand that this is a little to much for your little Kiwi brains nor used to actually having to think about the fact that we are part of the rest of the world but perhaps a little education would help.

    Why don’t you read these very interesting articles on the history of the New York Federal Reserve from 1987 and their nice little policies that made the coming collapse possible.

    The only way NZ will be able to deal with what’s coming is either Nationalise our money supply (I.e. print it ourselves) and our resources or sell our country to the highest bidder, i.e. the international financial predators. You decide what is likely to happen.

    What you reckon Pat? Will John Key stand for NZ or will he happily sell us to the highest bidder?

  16. Quoth the Raven 16

    As Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman said recently, in relation to the Employee Free Choice Act in the the US, there is a way to stimulate the economy without spending any of the taxpayers money, but obviously right wingers would never consider it and would wish to do the complete opposite, merely because they hate free markets so much. What is it? Strengthen the unions. New Zealand could do this simply by removing the regulations that fetter unions.

  17. @ work 17

    C’mon Steve sort your act out, haven’t you heard, the ghost of Roger Douglas is handing out a chocolate fish for every time you can write “Decade of Deficits” on your blog, for the whole rest of JK’s first 100 days!

  18. vto 18

    QtR, such as what particular regs … ?

    Curious, as labour is in many ways a form of capital and should be able to move as a free market item like any other. According to particular doctrine..

  19. RedLogix 19

    the real solution would have been to try to deflate the housing bubble and the accompanying wealth effect early and slowly with a capital gains tax on second homes but neither National nor Labour would go there.

    I do have a genuine question. Can anyone actually define for me exactly what they have in mind when they say ‘Capital Gains Tax’? It’s a fair ask.

  20. Quoth the Raven 20

    vto – There are numerous bits of regulation on forming a union, striking, bargaining &c. Much of it could go, some of it seems reasonable, but you could question the need for it after all a contract is a contract. Of course the situation isn’t nearly as bad here as it is in the US.

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