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Governments need to do some work.

Written By: - Date published: 1:30 pm, May 23rd, 2014 - 37 comments
Categories: Economy - Tags:

I nearly snorted my coffee down the wrong way when the Economist arrived on my pad this morning.  “In need of new oomph” opened with the obvious.

ECONOMISTS expected 2014 to be the year in which the global expansion stepped up a gear. Instead, nearly five years into its recovery from a deep recession, the rich world’s economy still looks disappointingly weak. America’s GDP grew at an annualised rate of only 0.1% in the first quarter. Euro-area growth, at 0.8%, was only half the expected pace. Some of the weakness is temporary (bad weather did not help in America), and it is not ubiquitous: in Britain and Germany, for example, growth has accelerated, and Japan has put on a brief spurt. Most forecasters still expect the recovery to gain momentum during the year.

For all of the obviously false cheer that Bill English put in his budget this month, most of his growth estimates appear to be  about as illusory as his “surpluses” are likely to be in coming years. With the continuing steady decline in whole milk powder prices, the increasing expectations of  Fonterra dropping milk solids prices from the record $8.65/kg to as low as $6 during 2014/5,  and flat demand in our rich world markets – which makes the nearly 4% GDP growth budgeted/forecast by treasury for 2015 look ever more unlikely.

Admittedly a lot of that will be from the earthquake rebuild. But that depends on a host of factors that don’t seem to be coming together too well, and most importantly it doesn’t appear to be soaking up the endemic unemployment that is causing a fair chunk of the governments continuing debt issues.

The governments debt position  is still caught by the simple fact that 5 and 4 years after making unaffordable taxcuts for the already affluent and effectively raising taxes on those less well off via a GST increase, the government is still leaking money. It simply didn’t generate any perceivable economic growth. It most likely did the exact opposite and contracted the economy further than it would have done without those tax cust.

But what gets interesting is where the Economist leader article proceeded from there.

What should be done to forestall that outcome? The standard answer is that central banks need to loosen monetary conditions further and keep them loose for longer.

The problem here is that while skills are in demand, then Christchurch is about the only thing in the entire economy that  might grow a need for the less skilled who are unemployed. Then there is the kicker…

But if loose monetary conditions are a prerequisite for a more vigorous recovery, it is increasingly clear that on their own they are not enough. Indeed, over-reliance on central banks may be a big reason behind the present sluggishness. In recent years monetary policy has been the rich world’s main, and often only, tool to support growth. Fiscal policy has worked in the opposite direction: virtually all rich-world governments have been cutting their deficits, often at a rapid clip. Few have shown much appetite for the ambitious supply-side reforms that might raise productivity and induce firms to invest. Free-trade deals languish.

In our case we don’t do much manufacture for the local economy any more and increasingly the targeting towards the local economy is just the services and retail. There really isn’t that much room for productivity improvements here. Every area that is exposed to world market conditions by exporting to it has about the largest incentive that can be imagined to improve productivity – and they do. Which is why we have high demand for skills in the main urban centres and little demand for the unskilled.

Against this unhelpful background, central banks have been remarkably successful. Growth has been so stable that economists are beginning to talk, somewhat eerily, of the return of the “Great Moderation”, the era of macroeconomic stability that preceded the global financial crisis (see article). Sadly, with such stability at a subpar pace of growth, low interest rates and low volatility have a bigger impact on asset prices than on real investment, and risk creating financial bubbles long before economies reach full employment.

Which is what is steadily making this country one of the worlds most expensive to live in relative to incomes in the places where jobs are.

What is really needed, though, is a more balanced growth strategy that relies less exclusively on central banks.

Such a strategy would have two elements. One is to boost public investment in infrastructure. From American airports to German broadband coverage, much of the rich world’s infrastructure is inadequate. Borrowing at rock-bottom interest rates to improve it will support today’s growth, boost tomorrow’s and leave the recovery less dependent on private debt.

That is the position that NZ is in. We have some real infrastructure constraints to our economic growth outside of the dairy sector. They simply haven’t been addressed by this government or they have been carefully placed so far in the future that they are effectively useless.

Even such infrastructure initiatives that they grabbed from the outgoing government like the fibre project are so glacially slow that they make no real difference. I have been waiting more than a year to get fibre at home since it was laid outside the door of my apartment block. They have been avoiding paying for infrastructure improvements that have clear economic benefits like the public transport projects in NZ (and claiming credit for the ones started by the last Labour government). Instead they keep trying to push uneconomic roading and housing projects that are of  significance only to National’s land banking allies.

A second element ought to be a blitz of supply-side reforms. In addition to the obvious benefits of freer trade, every rich country has plenty of opportunities for reforms at home, from overhauling the regulations that inhibit house-building in Britain to revamping America’s ineffective system of worker training.

We really have little room for supply-side reforms. Just about every one that has been proposed over the last decade either has or would have made things worse. For instance the perennial claims that reducing regulation on how housing is built would do anything except lead again to the colossal waste of resources that fell out of the 1990s ‘reforms’ in the same area and caused a massive production of sub-standard leaky homes. Or the way that deregulation and privatisation of the electricity sector has been steadily causing increased costs in that area to ‘finance’ the investment in the cheaply purchased infrastructure that only gets revalued upwards.  Directly or indirectly these have

Progress on these fronts would lead to stronger, stabler growth and would reduce the odds that the next recession begins with interest rates close to zero (making it particularly hard to fight). But it demands politicians who can distinguish between budget profligacy and prudent borrowing, and who have the courage to push through unpopular reforms. The rich world needs such politicians to step up.

Indeed. It is pretty clear that this National-led government has been incapable of seeing past dairy for the past 5 years. Time to put a government in who can.

37 comments on “Governments need to do some work.”

  1. karol 1

    This is an important piece of work, and indicates a major need for a change in approach.

    For me who is not so well versed in economics, I had to look up the meaning of “supply side economics”.

    And this I understand:

    Typical policy recommendations of supply-side economists are lower marginal tax rates and less regulation.

    So the answer is more focus on developing necessary and sound infrastructure, like public transport, and electricity – more focus on developing productive enterprises that can increase NZ’s exports?

    • lprent 1.1

      NZ already has low marginal income tax rates. A range of what is effectively 17.5% to 33% is about as flat as any country is likely to get (when they get flatter than that, they usually hurriedly revert) and not a lot of regulation by comparison with almost every country in the OECD.

      NZ really went deeply into the supply side mantra and it really isn’t a issue except for possibly undoing some of it.

      But we are a exporting nation but with far too much simple commodity exports.

      What we have are some significiant issues developing our non-commodity exports from our urban centres, in our communications infrastructure, in other infrastructures that support them like power, and in retaining skills.

      In my current round of job hunting for instance, I was looking longingly at overseas markets where we could get a larger living area at half of the relative income I use for it now. That is a powerful incentive to leave. Housing is going to be a hell of an issue for increasing exports at the relative housing costs here.

      BTW: before anyone starts going on about it. There is nowhere but Auckland in NZ that has the required density of support companies to allow people like me to produce exports in the areas that I do. There is a whole ecology of engineers, artists, couriers, and everything else required who are in a close enough proximity to produce the export cluster required. Christchurch was starting to get there before the earthquake…. Now the people moved North.

      • Populuxe1 1.1.1

        I thought the magic of the internet was supposed to render such density obsolete. Silly me.

        • Draco T Bastard 1.1.1.1

          The internet can do many things but it still can’t do teleportation.

          • Populuxe1 1.1.1.1.1

            I don’t know about you, but I hardly ever deal with “real” objects. I’d be rather surprised if a sysop had to at all.

  2. SpaceMonkey 2

    Perhaps it’s time we added another category to the “developing” and “developed” list of nations… “undeveloping”. That pretty much describes the insolvent, over-financialised western economies as they slowly unwind on the downward slope of the bell-curve towards collapse.

  3. Jim 3

    Great article, it introduces the arguments that this election should but won’t debate greatly. Yes the counter productive trickle up of the great tax switch. The real reduction of government funding of research and development. Raw logs being exported and then processed before being imported again for the Christchurch rebuild. The real contraction of our manufacturing sector. If issues like these are raised, as in David Cunliff’s speech on Wednesday, it is barley mentioned in the main stream media (just a small article on Stuff). If he had been offensive while saying this over twitter during the budget debate he may have got some coverage.

    • Brendon Harre 3.1

      Is there a link to David’s speech. I missed it ….

    • Brendon Harre 3.2

      John Armstrong: “Labour starting to look like contender”

      http://www.nzherald.co.nz/politics/news/article.cfm?c_id=280&objectid=11260998

      Something is happening. Labour is getting its mojo back. Maybe the public at large haven’t noticed yet but people who are watching closely have.

      It is not just National doing badly with the whole Collins and Williams crony capitalism thing.

      Or Jonkey having a bad day few days with the housing debate with Metiria Turei taking him apart in Parliament.

      http://www.interest.co.nz/news/70014/key-says-doesnt-accept-affordability-harder-first-home-buyers-now-when-he-bought-says-ple

      And the media have noticed…

      Opinion: John Key is a commanding leader – until he starts talking about houses
      http://www.interest.co.nz/opinion/70016/opinion-john-key-commanding-leader-until-he-starts-talking-about-houses

      I don’t think it is just Cunliffe has improved with the help of Matt McCarten as suggested by John Armstrong.

      I think Labour is beginning to articulate a new vision, different from the last 30 years of neo-liberalism. Not the slightly kinder more redistributed neoliberalism of Helen Clark but something fundamentally different.

      Kiwisaver and Kiwibuild are not policies about higher taxes and more spending. It is an conceptual shift acknowledging that the marketplace is not perfect and maybe the government can do something to improve on it.

      This conceptual shift would not have come if the public still believed that markets where always the solution and governments were always the problem.

      I wonder what else is coming? Other policies to help us switch from debt and consumption and overinvestment in existing houses to saving/investing in productivity improvements? New public infrastructure? Decentralisation? A hundred little market interventions that make life easier, such as Stuart Munro’s call to simplify the rules and information cost of building your own home? Or to look at the factors in general that make new builds and therefore existing houses so expensive.

      I think somehow the tide has turned against neoliberalism. Whether it turns in time to wash away Key and bring in Cunliffe I am not sure but something is happening out there.

  4. Colonial Viper 4

    Sigh. The Economist trying to pretend that it’s a novel concept that monetary policy has helped the very wealthy become obscenely wealthy, but has otherwise been unable to fix the world economy and that just maybe FISCAL expenditure (NOT austerity) might have to be used.

    Nah, the world’s leaders and elite can’t get us out of this one. Labour will be better than National on this count however, but they too will struggle under the neoliberal monetary and financial framework that has been imposed on the world.

    Just witness how Labour insists that we MUST cut NZ super by raising eligibility to 67 years of age even though 30% of our youth are unemployed.

    • Macro 4.1

      Exactly. Labour are almost as donkey deep in denial that the “precious” monetary policies of the mid 80’s and 90’s and today, are an absolute disaster for ordinary men and women, as National is now.
      We are seeing a repeat of history from the French of the late 1700’s as the wealthy become more insulated from reality living lives of obscene extravagance whilst 90% of the population decline further into penury. That as we know was “adjusted” when the middle classes suddenly woke up to the fact that they were working to support the 1%ers. I’m not sure what the outcome will be in the future, but I wouldn’t want to be living in a “mansion” and own a super yacht.

      • Brendon Harre 4.1.1

        Where is NZ’s version of Theodore Roosevelt?

        “One of his first notable acts as president was to deliver a 20,000-word address to Congress[77] asking it to curb the power of large corporations (called “trusts”). He also spoke in support of organized labor to the further chagrin of big business, but to their delight he endorsed the gold standard, protective tariffs and lower taxes.[78] For his aggressive use of United States antitrust law he became known as the “trust-buster.” He brought 40 antitrust suits, and broke up such major combinations as the largest railroad and Standard Oil, the largest oil company.[79]” (From wiki)

        • Colonial Viper 4.1.1.1

          Looking at any single heroic political figure as being able to provide salvation is totally futile IMO.

          Let’s not put the rose tinted glasses on. Hundreds of unemployed and poor Americans died fighting in bloody violent street protests against corporate forces and the police. It was brutal. Just search on YouTube for the clips. Against this backdrop Theodore Roosevelt was a centrist pro-business conciliator who saved corporate capitalism. He brought about the New Deal because a mass movement of millions in America, including militant trade unions, the socialist and communist parties, and other major social movements, forced him to, and gave him leverage to force Congress and big business to accept compromise to survive.

          NZ has no Theodore Roosevelt, and will never have anybody approaching Theodore Roosevelt (or MJ Savage) as long as it has no mass movement of people forcing such politicans to do the right thing.

          • Brendon Harre 4.1.1.1.1

            Fair call. I was just implying that either there is a (relatively) peacefully movement towards society fairly dividing up the economy or there is sliding into ever more unequal outcomes with the end result being some sort of violent revolution….

            I think movements like the first Labour government were on the whole ‘peaceful’ compared to the French revolution that Macro was implying above could be the outcome of our increasing unfair social outcomes.

            • Macro 4.1.1.1.1.1

              I don’t want a violent revolution anymore than any other sane person. What I see happening today however is perhaps summed up by CV, more succinctly than I could possibly say. Our polls tell us that the “joe lunch boxes” ( these are the middle class workers who head off every morning with or without their lunch box – a term I discovered last night used by those less privileged – and unemployed) are too busy working to notice that their situation is steadily deteriorating. The middle class in USA woke up recently to the fact that they are no longer the most affluent middle class in the world today. http://www.alternet.org/economy/were-not-number-1-guess-which-country-now-has-more-affluent-middle-class-america
              and I’ve got news for USA – it’s going to get worse!
              Eventually the reality will sink in – when 80% of ones income is going to providing a roof over ones head perhaps? Or the realisation that no matter how hard one works or saves the bills get on getting bigger and the possibility of owning a home becomes dimmer and dimmer. Who knows. Eventually people will begin to ask the question that they should have been asking all along. “Just what is the economy for anyway?”, and it’s not for the purpose of growing corporates bigger and bigger, as our present governments seem to think.
              Just how the “revolution” will pan out I have no idea. Obviously there is no movement pressing for major reform if the polls reflect this sentiment, and just as there is no clamouring for urgent action on climate change, politicians see no need to, or have any political mandate to, enact or institute policies that are needed.

              • Draco T Bastard

                +111

              • Colonial Viper

                Eventually the reality will sink in – when 80% of ones income is going to providing a roof over ones head perhaps?

                Another phenomenon to be aware of is how the mainstream media makes ordinary Americans bearing the brunt of the economic decline completely invisible and voiceless.

                For instance, in 2010 the banking industry seized more than 1M US homes. That’s a huge number equivalent to millions of people made homeless, being forced to move and find alternative accomodation, and many millions more with that daily threat hanging over their families.

                Orlov says that in contrast, during the collapse of the Soviet Union the socialised state housing system, as inefficient and insufficient as it was, meant that relatively few people lost their homes.

                So I would say that for very many Americans that reality has hit home in a brutal way. But you would never know it, seeing how the MSM keeps going on about the Kardashian wedding or Michael Jackson’s new album from beyond the grave.

                In NZ a similar thing happens. The MSM doesn’t give NZ’s many hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries a serious voice in the news, other than to harangue them, make jokes out of them, or portray them as lazy criminals waiting to be found out.

  5. ianmac 5

    Well Bill and John would disagree wouldn’t they. “We have repaired the damage done by 9 long years of a Labour led Government. We have given tax cuts to the deserving in a fiscally neutral way. We have loosened up the red tape that Labour had created because National wants growth and Labour doesn’t. And blah blah ….”
    They say this sort of stuff repeatedly and to we un-economic minded, it must be right because everyone knows that National is a good manager of the Economy. Aren’t they?
    Your piece Iprent sure loosens the Nat tight grip on the dialogue. How to get it to the general population though?

  6. Stuart Munro 6

    With respect to building reforms – I was self-building in the 90s when the standards changed from a $25 book to about 20 slim booklets for over $600. Inspections also went crazy during this period – or rather, increased out of proportion to their quality and value.

    That $25 book was not the standard that created the leaky homes – it was the uber technical new standards that permitted that. So I’m inclined to argue that both the standards and the inspection costs could readily be improved, and that the current system imbeds a layer of deadweight costs that we would do better to avoid. But the penalty period on poor building should probably be extended – householders and the consolidated should not carry the can for the developers.

    The ‘basic NZ home’ needs to be rethought, and without imposing massive new cost layers on established non-NZ-traditional technologies like adobe, geodesics, or apartments. Ideally a working group should be systematically attacking the fat in multiple housing component areas, from finance and materials to utilities, permits and real estate fees.

    The costs of some materials should permit new builds substantially cheaper than contemporary norms. But our regs are designed for a vanishing or vanished suburbia, they penalise alternative technologies.

    I’ve been in Asia for most of the last ten years too, so I should mention that, no, neither our service industries nor our retail are even remotely competitive.

    • Brendon Harre 6.1

      Thanks Stuart we need to get down to the practical level to make a real difference.

      An urban planner I really is Alain Bertaud. He was the principal planner for the World Bank. His thoughts are that government bodies -national and local should have two targets regarding urban planning.

      The first being housing affordability -medium house prices or rents as a proportion of medium incomes. Ideally these should be 3 times incomes or 25% of income respectively.

      Secondly mobility within an urban area. Every worker should be able to access all places of employment in under an hour, preferably half an hour.

      It being the government bodies responsibilty to ensure the regulations -building regulations, planning rules etc and instituitons -public transport, roads, local government funding and so on being constantly reviewed to attain these goals.

      I think this is consistent with what you -Stuart and Lynn are saying. KiwiBuild could also be seen as consistent with this idea as the 10 year project could be an important component in transitioning towards these goals.

      I think Alain Bertaud is coming to NZ in the next few months, look out for him when he comes.

  7. Ad 7

    This is an excerpt from a speech Cunliffe did recently. Curious at the end that he signals that there will be more announcements in this area.
    Lynn, I’d suggest you simply write to him direct and get in there on the policy floor. He knows you are expert in your field, and that you have been fully exprt-focussed for decades. Get in there.

    “We must meld our creativity with capital to build small to medium companies which dominate in market niches. We must foster talent to develop innovative products and services that people want to buy, and we must protect our intellectual property.

    We need to honour and replicate the likes of HamiltonJet, Icebreaker and Orion Health – mid-sized companies that have developed innovative products and services that the world wants to buy.

    In these cases, the high value activity and ownership has remained in New Zealand.

    But innovation is not just about hard science and new products. It is also about the softer aspects of business, such as distribution and marketing.

    Our current innovation problems are hurting us in the industry that will drive our future – ICT.

    If we compare ourselves with other smaller successful nations, it soon becomes clear that we have a deficit of around ten thousand high-tech jobs.

    Many of our children, and those who are teaching them, are running yesterday’s technology, and are falling behind their peers in the rest of the developed world.

    We cannot let that continue. ICT today plays a role similar to the railway in the 19th century. It is the infrastructure that opens up new markets and new supply chains.

    Places like Israel have realised the importance of upgrading ICT skills and related creative skills to support growth and innovation in other industries.

    We need to follow in their footsteps to upgrade our ICT industry.

    Labour is committed to overcoming the digital divide. We will not build a tech-savvy generation without new generation technology.

    That’s why our policy is to raise the bar in terms of ensuring access to fast broadband within low-decile schools.

    And Labour will introduce a “digital bill of rights” to give certainty to business and all New Zealanders that we can live, work and play safely and productively in the digital world.

    We will make further announcements in this important area.”

    • Draco T Bastard 7.1

      Labour is committed to overcoming the digital divide. We will not build a tech-savvy generation without new generation technology.

      That’s why our policy is to raise the bar in terms of ensuring access to fast broadband within low-decile schools.

      Chicken before the egg.

      Some of the most tech-savvy people I’ve ever met are the older people who didn’t grow up with a computer at home, people who wanted to play with something new and exciting, people who were backed by both their parents and their community to engage in that play. Nowadays we’re way to worried about how much it will cost because we’ll have to raise taxes upon the rich.

      You want to increase innovation? Then increase the number of people who can play in the sandpit.

      • Colonial Viper 7.1.1

        Nowadays we’re way to worried about how much it will cost because we’ll have to raise taxes upon the rich.

        And on the over 50’s, i.e. highly regular voters the ones who hold the vast majority of the property assets, cash and other financial assets of this country, as well as the corporates who export billions of dollars out of the country a year.

        Will we have a Left govt gutsy enough to do these necessary things to fund key gutsy and necessary initiatives for the country?

        Some of the most tech-savvy people I’ve ever met are the older people who didn’t grow up with a computer at home

        Yep. Teaching kids how to use iPads is a waste of time. You can teach a 60 year old who hasn’t used a computer before in her life how to use an iPad in an hour.

        If you want technologically savvy kids they have to learn about electronics, semiconductors, logic and programming. Not how to use dumbed down user applications and graphical user interfaces.

    • Frankie and Benjy Mouse 7.2

      ensuring access to fast broadband within low-decile schools.

      will not be as effective as fixing some other barriers in the NZ education system. For example new “Digital Technology” Achievement standards are available for NCEA (levels 1, 2 and 3) but some schools avoid teaching them as they are seen as too hard or take the simplest option within a standard.
      Junior classes (year 9 and year 10) in Digital technology aren’t taught in every school and may only be a small part of a general technology course. The courses must teach to the curriculum and assess it too. Problem? Well yes. Look at the Technology curriculum. Level 4 Achievement objectives for year 9. Thirteen year old computer whizzes will get put off the subject if that dominates.
      Comprehensive technical training of specialist teachers could have a big impact (some probably came into the teaching profession as typing teachers).
      Ministry of Ed and NZQA could lift their game also.

  8. Philj 8

    xox
    And a quality non commercial Public broadcaster, to lift us up and not dumb us down.

    • Macro 8.1

      Amen! to that.

    • Once was Tim 8.2

      +100
      (but we should not flog off TVNZ’s assets as we’ve done with other assets the public has built up. Rather we should recapture them as use them as was intended – as a public service. A cleanout of its management however is another story as is the case with other areas of the corporatised public service.)

  9. Minty 9

    Great post, collectively it’s vital to increase the export wealth of the country. We can’t focus on primary industries.

    We need to help develop the innovative and smart companies that are sending high value kiwi products, ideas and IP out to the world.

    All you need to look at is what happened last year to Fonterra with the health scare. Putting all your eggs in one basket is too risky.

    I am heavily involved in the export community and for the last few years been a judge for the export NZ awards. I am amazed each year at how much talent we have in the I.T and non traditional sectors. This year is no different.

    The Govt whoever it is needs to have policy in place to help grow these very smart and innovative sectors.

    • Draco T Bastard 9.1

      EU (skewed) competitiveness
      A different analysis

      Indeed, one of the biggest myths propagated during the ‘eurozone crisis’ has been that the ‘periphery’ countries such as Greece and Italy, have been too ‘profligate’, while the more responsible ‘core’ has known when and how to ‘tighten its belt’. Figures suggest the opposite: the periphery did not spend enough on key expensive areas, like R&D, that cause growth.

      The same is true of NZ. We just don’t do the work that develops our economy.

    • Colonial Viper 9.2

      Gaining wealth through exporting is an economic development strategy of the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s. And it can still be very effective in niche industries for niche NZ companies.

      But the export-your-way-to-wealth gravy train is over. Western markets are in permanent real economic decline. The oligarchs are ensuring that everyone else has to “tighten their belts” i.e. budgets and spending are being cut. Financialisation helps prop up the top line numbers in the OECD but the reality is that the western consumer its tapped out, aging and only a few years away from full retreat.

      The only real capitalist growth industries now are in boosting the western transition to a neo-feudal security and surveillance state.

      NZ needs to get ready for the next 30 years of sharp economic, resource and energy depletion. Import substitution is every bit as critical as new high value exports, and I would suggest even more so.

  10. Lloyd 10

    One way to speed development would be to strengthen the RMA by introducing NES for housing development

    An NES overcomes the anarchy of different rules throughout the country and makes designing one design to comply with nation-wide rules much easier for mass-production of housing. It is not the RMA that makes life difficult for developers working across the country, it is the DISTRICT PLANS.

    Paying the MFE staff a fair wage, increasing the appropriate MFE staff numbers and requiring several housing NES be introduced ASAP would be a good result for any politician of any party….

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