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!