3/5s of not very much

Steven Joyce gives the government some much-needed advice:

It was confirmed this week that New Zealand is now running at little more than half speed.

From growing at rates of 3½ to 4 per cent three years ago our economy at the end of June was only 2.1 per cent larger than it was the previous June.

That’s a problem firstly because our population is growing at about 1.6 per cent a year, so if our economy grows at 2 per cent then the amount of additional wellbeing per person (to coin a phrase) is three fifths of not very much.

Not very much is far less than we need for economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing.

The second problem is that our terms of trade (the prices of our exports versus our imports) are still very strong so we should still be cranking along. It’s a problem if we are slowing down when the world really wants to buy what we are selling. What happens if the world actually falls out of bed?

What happens is recession and maybe even depression.

The government has been quick to blame the world economy for our lower growth rate this week, but our terms of trade put the lie to that.

The third problem is that there is no sign of anything on the horizon that will lead to much of an upturn, and in fact all the signs are that we are going to slow further. Our businesses are in a funk because of what is known as regulatory overhang. In short, they are too fearful to invest because the government is making lots of rule changes that could mean they don’t get much of a return for the risk they take.

It’s not just farmers, other businesses are too scared to invest.

The government for its part seems inclined to shrug its shoulders and say “nothing to see here”. They observe we are still growing (slightly) faster than Australia so what’s the problem? That story is likely to change in the next six months as Australia’s tax cuts come through and their housing market picks up. Anyway weren’t we trying to grow a lot faster than Australia so we could close the income gap with our cousins across the Tasman – what happened to that ambition?

This government has no ambition for growth, only for regulate, tax and spend.

The fourth problem is that lower growth means less to go around. If we were still growing as fast as we were then in real terms our economy would be around $5 billion bigger this year than it is. That means more money for higher pay and more jobs, and of course about 30 per cent of it goes into the government coffers – which would pay for a lot more cancer drugs, teachers or electric vehicle subsidies.

How hard is it to join the dots between higher growth and more for essential services and infrastructure?

So what to do? Well if I could offer some gratuitous advice to the Finance Minister I think he should be working on baking a bigger cake, and I think the recipe is pretty straightforward. Its time to rein in some of his ministerial colleagues who are wreaking havoc with business confidence.

For example he should suggest the Minister of Immigration sort out his portfolio so that horticulturists can find seasonal workers and the international education sector can get up off its knees. He should tell the Minister for the Environment to come up with a more reasonable plan for water quality improvements and methane emissions reductions so farmers step back from the cliff edge, and the Minister of Education to stop stuffing about with the apprenticeship system.

He should encourage the Reserve Bank Governor to be less heroic on bank capital requirements, persuade his colleagues to do a backtrack on gas exploration now it is proven the ban is simply value destroying and does nothing for climate change, overrule the Greens to permit some gold mining, and stop taxing tourists more so the tourism sector starts growing again. He should cancel the return to industry-wide pay bargaining given that NZ First are never going to vote for it anyway, tell the Transport Minister to get on with building at least some of the stalled roading projects, particularly given that light rail is years away, and reverse at least one of the petrol tax increases.

Then he could watch the economy recover and start thinking about how he’s going to allocate the increased government revenues. And New Zealand will be in much better shape if the world economy does get worse. . .

He won’t of course and nor will he see that it’s the poor and the struggling middle that will be hurt the hardest by policies which hamper growth.

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