Nat-onomics: $30 million up in flames

Written By: - Date published: 1:15 pm, April 17th, 2010 - 10 comments
Categories: dpf, national, spin, superannuation - Tags: ,

Vernon Small calculates that if the Cullen Fund had continued getting its monthly contributions, rather than just the one-off $250 million the government gave in July, we would be $30 million better off by now. That’s even more than the $24 million I calculate, but I’m only using figures up to December (the most rent ones used to be on the Cullen Fund website but they’ve disappeared).

Predictably, the financially illiterate Key apologists are having a cry about being shown to have stuffed this one up so badly. Take National Party pollster David Farrar:

“The taxpayer may have been able to make a gain of $30 million if it had borrowed more money, for the fund to invest. That is certainly true, but it is a potential gain only.”

Yeah, in the same way that failing to put money in your personal savings account is only giving up a ‘potential’ gain in interest or applying the brakes when you had the chance could ‘potentially’ avoid a crash. It still counts. Or maybe in Farrar’s world there’s no consequences of not doing something.

“You can not automatically assume that any additional investments would have achieved the same return as the existing investments. An extra $2 billion may have been invested in a stock that did not do so well, or may have meant a higher average price for buying such stock.”

Nor can you automatically assume that it wold have done worse like Farrar does. The best guide to the additional return the Cullen Fund could have earned is the return it made on the money it did have.

“It is fair enough to talk about a potential gain or that was missed, but that is not the same thing as stating that potential gain as a loss let alone a cost. That is a sloppy short cut.”

No. Take this example: ‘not putting $1,000 in my savings account and spending it on sherbet instead cost me $50 in interest’. Now, upscale: ‘not putting $150 million a month into our collective savings and, instead, giving tax cuts to the rich has cost us $30 million in returns so far’

“One could borrow $10 billion a year to invest in stocks, and probably get a good return on them. But it would also be risky.”

Strawman. No-one’s talking about mortgaging the house to go gambling. We’re talking about continuing to put money into our retirement savings even though we also owe money on a lower-interest loan.

“What we don’t know if whether or not we would have got a credit downgrade, if the Government decided to continue to borrow money to invest. And if we had, then that would have had a very real cost on every New Zealander.”

If we had made this investment, it would have lowered or net debt. You don’t get credit downgrades for lowering your net debt. And our gross debt was never out of control. Indeed, National still thought it had enough money to cut taxes for the rich.

“It is also worth noting that over the entire life of the fund, the rate of return is still below the risk free rate of return. The NZ economy would be hundreds of millions of dollars better off if the fund had never been set up, and the money used to repay debt.”

Over its life, the return on the Cullen Fund has been slightly less (0.06%) than the cost of borrowing. That’s $9.5 million – not ‘hundreds of millions’ (remember, people pay this guy to do polling) – and an amount that would have been wiped off by now if the contributions to the Fund had continued. But, hmm, what caused the Fund’s value to drop after stellar gains in its first few years? Oh yeah, the largest recession in 50 years happened.

Yeah, the value of the Fund’s holdings went down then but, guess what?, it got to buy up a whole lot of assets at once in a lifetime prices and since the March of last year (that’s right before last year’s Budget) it’s been turning profits. Between March and December last year it made a 31.7% return compared to a cost of borrowing of 2.3%.

Yesterday, I joked about the only people who couldn’t work out that canceling contributions to the Cullen fund when National did was a mistake were those who mindlessly buy National’s spin and those who need to take off their socks to count past ten. I missed a group, Farrar’s ravings suggest that National’s spinsters believe their own spin. Sad, really.

10 comments on “Nat-onomics: $30 million up in flames”

  1. ianmac 1

    I take your message seriously thanks Marty.
    But loved your “National’s spinsters believe their own spin.” Images of sad lonely maidens knitting socks for the National Party.

  2. tsmithfield 2

    “IF” is a wonderful word.

    IF I had picked the correct lotto numbers I would be a millionaire by now.

    I think it is quite justifiable not to put public money, especially borrowed public money at risk in the conditions the markets were in last year. There is still plenty of indications in the likes of the American housing market and sovereign debt issues that the world economy is still in a very tenuous situation. In fact, in many ways, the can has just been kicked down the road.

    The QE programs and stimulus have artificially pumped up the markets, but there was no guarantee of success at the time. Governments shouldn’t only be thinking about return, they also need to be thinking about risk. Afterall, the likes of shares etc aren’t called “risky” assets for nothing. Sure, the American stock markets have been doing well in nominal terms. However, when the devaluation of the dollar over that time is netted off, the returns aren’t nearly has spectacular in real terms. Also, there are some real and present dangers such as contagion in sovereign debt and major asset bubbles in China that could blow up at any time.

    Fine to put your own money at risk. But when you’re a government doing it on the behalf of others, and borrowing it as well, its a no-brainer, really.

  3. tsmithfield 3

    One other thing Marty. I might be wrong, but I think is you who has written some quite good articles on the likelihood of a double-dip recession for the world economy.

    If you have written these articles, why do you subscribe to the government borrowing to invest in a world market subject to the sort of risks you have perceived.

    • Marty G 3.1

      clearly, there has been an uptick and everyone could see that coming by budget time last year.

      will there be a double dip? the chances of it happening this year are receding.

      When the next recession comes the fund should do what it has done, see what’s coming, get into cash, bonds, and gold, wait out the storm, then buy cheap off the useless capitalists and ride the upswing.

      • tsmithfield 3.1.1

        And what of “black swan” events, Marty?

        For instance, who knows what the eventual economic repercussions will be of the icelandic volcano eruption (some of these have historically gone on for years).

        Don’t get me wrong. I am currently risking some of my own money on stocks etc. However, its a different story when it is money borrowed on behalf of the public. I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you take out a mortgage on your house. Give the money to me, and I’ll invest it for you.

  4. sean14 4

    “Nor can you automatically assume that it wold have done worse like Farrar does.”

    Exactly. There is no way to know what would have happened, so Small’s story is a pointless beat-up.

    Meanwhile, NZ keeps on borrowing $250 million a week. As you seem to be happy with the country borrowing money to invest (gamble) in the stockmarket, presumably you advocate the same for individuals and families?

    Perhaps Labour’s next social welfare policy will be extending loans to the working poor so they can cash in on the evil capitalist stockmarket?

    • Marty G 4.1

      It’s not $250 mil a week. In fact, so far this year net govt debt has gone down.

      facts = useful.

      “Perhaps Labour’s next social welfare policy will be extending loans to the working poor so they can cash in on the evil capitalist stockmarket?”

      they did – Cullen Fund and Kiwisaver, govt money to give rewards to working poor. The Left has no problems with the people owning the means of production.

      • Herodotus 4.1.1

        I am sure that you would be aware that some portion of this is sourced from increase of investments e.g. ACC, Cullen funds and others. This was in yesteryear under Lab some of our surplus were so great from the bebfit of investment funds increasing. The benefit from investments. Just becasue yo have a break even situation but there could be as like today a CASh deficit. Conversley the opposite could and has occurred, where we have cash surplus but net debt increases. Like in business Cash is king!!

  5. Name 5

    “Between March and December last year it made a 31.7% return…”

    No, it only made that much ‘return’ on money actually invested at the bottom of the crash.

    The same, roughly, would be true of my portfolio, but as between September ’07 and February ’08 it lost nearly 50% it still isn’t back to its value of 18 months ago. Farrar is right in the sense that NZ has hundreds of millions less to spend now than it had 18 months ago just as I have a few thousand less – on paper – but that’s only relevant to the extent that we might actually want to realise it now to spend on something else. As both the Cullen Fund and my portfolio are ‘nesteggs’ the only relevant figure is the return (or otherwise) seen over the life of the investment and what the thousands I, and millions NZ, might invest are worth then.

    That said, I did keep investing in my small way even through the crash and I have made substantial gains on those small investments which off-set the major losses in the short term, while in the long term the cheaply bought will show the best return.

  6. Adrian 6

    It’s time someone called this bullshit about ” borrowing $250 mill a week”. Quite a few weeks ago one of the TV stations in a rare spot of journalism asked ( I wish I could remember who, but it was a quick snippet of course) a senior economist from Berl or BNZ or somesuch about it and he said that it was basicly bullshit. Most of the 250 was rollovers and the amount of new money raised was a lot less than the mythical $250 million.

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