Archive for February, 2011

February 25th, 2011

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Christchurch Quake: Time for Public Money and a New Deal

I was at University when the quake struck, eating my lunch and reading a paper on “Native Rights”. I didn’t hang about and immediately dived under the table as I didn’t like the look of the walls and ceiling lights flailing about like paper decorations. When the first shake had finished I headed outside quickly and sat down whilst the two big after shocks rocked the surrounding buildings. The University seemed reasonably unscathed……nothing like the CBD which is 5 kms to the East.

The damage of the Feb 22nd 6.3 shake is way worse than the Sep 4th 7.1 quake. No doubt this is due to the depth and the proximity of the epicenter. But this post is not about the earthquake, it’s about the economic impact and the re-building to come.

The cost of this disaster is only guessable at the moment. Numbers from $10 to 16bln have been thrown out but it could be anything. There is no doubt that this is a complete rebuild of the city’s infrastructure and central business district. Added to that is the viability of the eastern suburbs. They were affected badly and there will be questions over ground issues when it comes to re-building.

I want to go back to 1936 and the First Labour government which introduced low interest loans as part of a system of public finance to rebuild the country’s post-war economy. Think of it as New Zealand’s New Deal. The Reserve Bank governor can direct this at any time. This is certainly one possibility.

What I would like to see is fresh new money being injected directly into the economy by the government. The Treasury can action this at any time. The New Zealand economy has been struggling for a few years now since the GFC hit and deleveraging started. Business is struggling and cash is constantly tight. This latest quake will have finished off many business hanging by a thread.

I am proposing the Treasury create $5bln of new interest free money and credit it to the Government Earthquake Department for use in the rebuilding of public infrastructure. This is real money (not debt) and it will flow through into the economy thus giving it a boost as well as providing liquidity to the economy.

The money supply will increase by $5bln but I don’t believe there will be any inflationary risk. We are currently in a period of deflation and deleveraging with falling house prices and economic stagnation. NZ needs all the help it can get and there has never been a greater need nor a better time for this proposal.

It’s time for a New Deal. Please pass this on if you can.

February 20th, 2011

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Savings (Working Group): There aren’t any.

I’ve finally finished wading through the paperweight (as is the norm) aka the Savings Working Group report. Having read the initial commentary, I wasn’t that excited about the prospect but often in these reports there are useful nuggets of information. The main noise is around saving more and adjusting savings incentives especially to promote Kiwisaver.

What is not clear though is to what extent we have an actual savings problem. Our gross saving is at the low end of the OECD with Portugal and Greece below us along with two nations that might surprise: The US and the UK (page 121). There is also difficulty in analysing the differences between household and business saving. NZ is a country of small businesses and often business and household financials are closely interlinked. There is no definite conclusion around this issue and the report asks for further research into this topic, especially around data collection.

The macro level is really where the problem can be seen. When looking at the growth in national wealth, it’s clear to see that housing revaluations are the key driver (page 127) of growth since 1999. In fact “property revaluations explain nearly all changes in household net worth since 2001 (page 130). This is another way of demonstrating that we haven’t actually created any productive wealth: we’ve simply revalued our housing base and used that to fund increased consumption. That consumption has been funded by debt and that is why we have a serious debt problem.

So can we save our way out of this problem? Looking at the data on household incomes one would have to say “no chance”. Market incomes have fallen (yes fallen) for the bottom half of the population between 1988 and 2007 (page 140). That is simply astounding. This at a time when house prices have risen 490%. This is the cause of the deepening inequality between the owners of property and the renters. Even with benefits added in income for the first four deciles has remained largely the same (page 141).

Poor choices? Or simply no income with which to save. I think we must face the fact that half of our population is existing on meagre income. They cannot save and are likely to be in debt simply by virtue of not having enough cash to afford purchases or expenses outside of the simple basics of living. Those who have managed to get on the property ladder have prospered primarily because their asset has risen substantially in value. That is where their  savings lie. It should be noted though that, for many, this increased wealth is purely on paper.

At this point it might be worth looking across to data from Australia (page 128. Aussies actually have more of their wealth in residential property than Kiwis do (50% vs 46%). Investment in shares in much the same (8% vs 9%). The big difference is in long term assets. Aussies have 19% in Pensions and Superannuation whereas Kiwis have 2%. To balance that out Kiwis have 22% in business and farm assets against Aussies holding just 9%. So for Kiwis businesses and farms are their pensions. This is not an exact comparison but it’s clear that there is not much to separate the two countries other than Aussies invest in public companies and Kiwis keep it private. It also shows that Australia may have the same debt problem we do though they have benefitted more from the commodities bubble than NZ.

The oft quoted statement (from Ministers, the RB and other officials) that Kiwis should save more is somewhat optimistic. Save more from what exactly?

So what can we do? Well we can look at the other side of the savings coin and that is our expenditure. As a country we have essentially borrowed our GDP for the last 20 years. This is reflected in our current account position which has left us with a Net Foreign Liability (NFL) of 85% of GDP. Poor investment and low labour productivity (not sure where the NZBR gets its numbers from) has left is with nearly 40 years of negative current account balances (pages 20-24). The simple explanation is that we have consumed more than we have sold (plus all that accumulated and compounding interest). This consistent deficit should have seen NZ with a consistently weak currency (to allow the balance of payments to correct) but this has not been the case. NZ’s high real interest rates have been attracting overseas investment looking for a high yielding home (page 26). NZ is seen as a safe place to invest and, in an era of low global rates, has seen major inward flows which have not just funded the current account deficit but also the major revaluation in house prices.

The accumulated current account deficit has pushed interest rates thus forcing up the currency . This in turn has made imports even cheaper fueling the spending boom and embedding the circularity of higher prices in the economy (page 39). The bottom line here is that our currency is too high. This has been noted for some time but successive governments have chosen to ignore the problem, hoping that regular comments will help keep a lid on its appreciation. A 2010 IMF study estimated “that stabilising NFL would require the real effective exchange rate to depreciate by 20%”….that’s to just keep NFl where it is now. To reduce “NFL to 75% of GDP over 15 years would require the real effective exchange rate to depreciate by 25%” (page 36).

That would put the NZ$ at between $0.55-0.60. Ouch!

That is the real story to come out of this report. To summarise:

- We don’t save much because half the population has had no increase in income for 20 years.

- The other half have increased wealth due to large revaluations in house prices.

- The top 2 deciles have seen increases in wages and this is where most of the real saving is coming from (if any).

- Debt funded consumption has seen interest rates rise thereby sucking in more investment flows and boosting the currency.

- We have borrowed to live and really have no spare cash to save.

- The best form of saving is paying down debt, both private and public.

- The only way to improve our position is to export more and import less.

- The primary way to export more and import less is to engineer a significant and lasting depreciation in the currency.

- The second option is to develop and invest further in export based industries.

Adjusting tax incentives and boosting Kiwisaver are not going to help us out of this malaise. Only strong and decisive action can help us from here. So what would I recommend? That’s too much for this post but at a high level some of the following (most of which I have written about previously).

- Lower the exchange rate by direct intervention.

- Cut interest rates as well as bringing down the cost of mortgages which are still very high.

- Restrict bank credit by raising asset requirements.

- Build a self-sustaining energy sector.

- Introduce a basic income to replace welfare and superannuation.

- Liquidate the overseas portion of the Cullen Fund (now whilst markets are at 30 month highs).

- Invest more in the productive export sector.

- Oh and let’s have a land tax whilst we’re at it (this was ruled out by the government in the terms of reference!).

Next week: The Welfare Working Group reports…..can’t wait!

February 16th, 2011

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ANZAC$: Back on the Parade Ground

Yesterday Julia Gillard became the first foreign leader to give a speech in Parliament. It was full of mateship and the usual joshing that is a theme for Australian-New Zealand relations. Beneath the jovial tone lay the theme of integration. This has been around for a long time, probably since the CER was first implemented back in 1983. It’s been somewhat on the backburner over the last 12 months as Australia has gone through a political shift but now the same theme is back on the table.

Is complete economic union likely? I addressed this back in September 2009 when it was last on the table. What has changed since then?

There has been a major shift in global political alignments. As the shift of economic power has moved from West to East, so has the political spotlight. Back in 2008 I noted cross border acquisitions from the East and that these signaled a major shift to a post-imperial world. That shift has continued apace with China rising to the fore, now the second largest economy in the world. For the ANZAC brothers that has major implications.

Being connected to the ASEAN has helped both Australia and New Zealand define its geo-political position in a post-Empire world, specifically post European Community integration. Asia is quite clearly the major focus in terms of trade and this has seen some interesting reaction from the old allies. This year we had a visit from William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, along with his Defence colleague, Liam Fox. It was the first visit in almost 20 years and indicated that the UK was taking this shift East a little bit more seriously. Suddenly old friends were very much worth getting to know again. Previous to this we had a semi-royal visit from Hilary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, down under to sign the Wellington Declaration which put NZ back in the very, very good friends corner. And today we see the Treasury heads of the UK and Australia in town to meet with their NZ counterpart. This is of note as it is the first time they have met together.

So what does this all mean? Simply it’s a jostling for position and a reaffirming of old ties in  a very new world. This puts Australia and New Zealand in a very strong strategic position. We are friends of the old and the new world. We are well located geographically…out of the way but close enough. For the ANZAC buddies that poses some interesting questions. Stronger together, weaker alone or carry on as is?

We can see that the CER is being re-negotiated to allow of higher levels of non-reviewed investment which could mean a lift for corporate activity as well as a loss of company control. And this is really the crux of the matter. Do we want to control our own destiny? Lessons from Europe are all too stark in this regard. Sinking economies have no room to lower their currencies and so swing in the wind, completely reliant on bailouts.

Ultimately the people will decide on this, though its clear that further integration around common borders, regulations and practices is likely to continue. At what point does having separate currencies become a pain? Well ask anyone trying to transfer money between the two countries. You would imagine you could shift cash at minor spreads but actually you pay through the nose. Travelex is one the worst players in this market. Even market spreads are quite wide. So there is definitely a cost to doing business which might add up to 1-2% of overall activity.

A nation’s currency is ultimately a reflection of its sovereignty. The ability to issue your own coin is one the the most recognised symbols of nationhood and has often been as an economic weapon in the colonisation process. If you lose that ability then you lose control. It’s as simple as that. The way to overcome that is to just recognise that you are part of something bigger (in this case Australasia) and take the good with the bad. Personally I think it’s a tough decision to make. History tells me that having control over your own affairs is a good thing. But perhaps the mateship bond will swing views the other way. Perhaps it’s already happened. I’ll leave the final word to Peter Costello, the former Australian Treasurer, at the second Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum in April 2005 (“Crisis”, Bollard, 2010, 26):

“You guys in New Zealand have to get real. If you want to be part of a single economic market with us you can forget having your own banking system. Remember, you sold your banks to us: you don’t own your financial system any more. Leave the regulation to us”.

Strewth!!

About

"I’m a Londoner who moved to Christchurch, New Zealand in 2002. After studying economics and finance at Manchester University and a couple of years of backpacking, I ended up working in the financial markets in London. I traded the global financial markets on behalf of investment banks for 11 years. Since moving to NZ, I have been an angel investor, budget advisor, director, trustee, mentor and business consultant. I'm currently a Councillor at Christchurch City Council and a Trustee of the Volunteer Army Foundation and the Christchurch Arts Festival Trust. I write about the intersection of economic, social and environmental issues."

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