Posts Tagged ‘saving’

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!

May 29th, 2009

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How to Invest

People are always asking me where to put their money so I thought I would do a simple post about it. I should add this is simply my own opinion and you should really check with a financial advisor…………tongue firmly in cheek!

Let’s start with the obvious. There is no such thing as a risk free investment. Even sovereign bonds (those issued by governments) can turn into wallpaper….look at the US Treasury market now, the world’s safest place to park your cash. Ultimately it’s just an IOU, generally backed by commodities or in the case of the US by a fairly large military and lots of nuclear rockets.

Having got that out of the way the first question you need to ask yourself is why am I investing? Is it for regular income or the hope of generating a huge pile of cash for future income generation (retirement for example).

Let’s start with the income piece by looking at what is available:

- Cash deposits.

- Term deposits.

- Government bonds.

- Corporate bonds.

- Shares that pay dividends.

- Property.

Generally, as in all things, you pay for what you get. The main issue any investor should consider before making an investment is liquidity:

How quickly can I get my cash and what will I have to pay to get it?

As many investors found to their cost in recent years, liquidity is the single most important issue.

Which draws the question: is there a market for my investment?

In the case of cash that is not a problem (actually that’s not true but for the sake of this exercise we will pretend that cash is always available – see Northern Rock for further details).

Stocks can generally be sold on the spot and cash received quickly (of course stocks can be suspended at anytime which means you can’t trade it, well not on the exchange).

Bonds have a market you can trade on but liquidity can be an issue sometimes.

Property you can forget. That’s a highly illiquid asset.

Managed funds as we see all to often can be very hard to get out of and the fees can be severe. If the fund holds any kind of assets other than plain stocks then redemptions may force suspension of the fund (we’ve seen that).

Baring all that in mind cash seems like the best place to have your money if access is an issue and you are risk averse. Second up would be quoted shares with high liquidity (shares on the major index e.g. Telecom in NZ which pays a good dividend). Bonds would be next and then managed funds and property bringing up the rear.

Anything that offers these with a twist is to be avoided unless you’re a professional. Like guaranteed capital return plus 100% of the 5 year blah blah return on some index. Avoid. There are huge fees and margins built into what is a simple option structure.

I’m sorry but there’s no free lunch in the investment world. But it’s very easy to lose money or receive poor returns whilst paying out large fees and charges.

My advice is start with cash and spend some time learning about basic stocks and bonds. Believe me it is not difficult.

Armed with a little knowledge most people could construct a portfolio of cash, stocks and bonds in a few hours.

Also don’t be lulled into the idea that you are a long term investor and won’t be pulling down the cash for 20-30 years. Look at how fast the world is changing…….planning that far ahead may not actually make much sense.

As with most things in life, keeping it simple can pay off. Also spending a little time learning about investment can save you a lot of money as well as enabling yourself to take charge of your own financial destiny.

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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