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.