There’s been some frankly bizarre talk about the earthquake being an economic boon for the country. I guess the Right is just desperate for anything to improve the economy under National. So, I thought it would be worthwhile going through the economic ramifications of the earthquake from the immediate effects to long term:
Initial effects: The economic heart of Christchurch is shut down. About $2 billion worth of damage has been done, much of this damage will impede economic activity. Infrastructure is damaged as are buildings and factories. People are dislocated, injured, or busy trying to get their personal lives together. People needing elective surgery are unable to get it. In economic terms, the large parts of both the capital and labour needed for production are out of action.
Westpac, using a model derived from the Los Angeles and Napier earthquakes, estimates that $300 million of economic activity will be lost (0.2% of GDP). ASB chief economist Nick Tuffley puts the hit at 0.6% of GDP. NZIER was already forecasting that growth in this December quarter would be -0.2%. That’s likely to be much worse now.
The damage will include businesses that are already on the brink thanks to the recession going to the wall and hundreds if not thousands of job losses. Those workers who lose their jobs will flood an already bad jobs market. The government will lose tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue and face big increases in costs from emergency benefits, ACC claims, and its share of the cost of rebuilding local infrastructure before we even get to the EQC payouts. The added borrowing needed to fill the gap will probably mean the government has to pay more interest on its debt.
The Earthquake Commission, logically, has most of its assets offshore, and so do the insurance companies. To make the payouts, they’re going to have to buy a lot of New Zealand dollars – higher demand equals higher exchange rate. Offsetting this, possibly, is that it just became much less likely the Reserve Bank will increase interest rates again, which should dampen demand for the dollar. Overall, the effect is that we haven’t seen a sharp fall in the currency, which would have been a boon for exporters, that you might expect from a disaster like this.
Medium term: EQC and insurance companies will begin making payouts within weeks but it will be months before the big rebuilding starts. The rebuilding will increase GDP by about 1% of a year’s output when it is spent because GDP simply reflects economic activity in a given time period not accumulated wealth. But that will only be returning the country’s physical wealth to where it was before, it will not be real economic gain.
If I break my cellphone and have to dip into my savings to replace it, I am not better off, I am worse off – even if the new phone is better because obviously I had preferred to have my old phone and my savings rather than the new phone. The same is true of the need to spend our savings on rebuilding. People who say it’s good for the economy are forgetting that the rebuilding is funded by giving up our savings and the option to spend them elsewhere. That’s the broken windows fallacy – it mistake of seeing what is gained but not what is lost, or mistaking temporary economic activity for economic wealth.
It is good timing, however, in one sense. The slow-down in commercial construction was about to put 20,000 jobs at risk. At least they’ll have something to do for a while now, and the construction industry has the spare plant and equipment for the rebuilding task. Of course, that’s just jobs that would otherwise be lost saved, not new jobs created.
Longer term: once the rebuilding is over, there will be little to show for it. The boost of the rebuilding itself will not be permanent and will contribute little to long-term production capacity. Once the rebuilding is over, the GDP boost will disappear. That’s true of a stimulus package too, of course. But the idea is that a stimulus package gets the economy revved up again and builds up its production capacity. The rebuilding of Christchurch will not be like that it’s not going to create sustainable economic momentum or add greatly to the productive capacity of Christchurch.
As Westpac noted “This will boost national GDP by far more than the initial income loss, with a corresponding letdown once the reconstruction boom ends.” Just as with the Rugby World Cup, the one-off up-tick in GDP will be matched by a corresponding downwards movement when the spending stops. This is not a permanent increase in economic output.
This boom and bust might further damage business confidence and, with it, longer-term growth.
Ultimately, about $2 billion of capital from the government and private insurers will be converted into expenditure to rebuild the capital that was lost. In the end, we replace the physical assets by running down our financial assets via a temporary increase in economic activity but our national wealth is decreased – that can’t be forgotten.
Of course, I and others have been arguing for some time that the government should decrease its net assets to more economic activity. Of course, we meant by borrowing, rather than selling assets like the EQC will but essentially it’s the same thing from the perspective of the government books. The difference is that, without the earthquake, we could have spent that money on re-igniting the economy and making a wealthier country for the future. Now it needs to be spent just on what was lost.
We’re going to be left with higher net debt, which we will either pay interest on or pay down – either option means less consumption/lower economic standard of living in the long term