Saturday, March 7, 2009

As I said to my long-suffering spouse ...

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 4.)

On the radio a few weeks ago, I heard the chief economist for one of the major trading banks chiding New Zealanders for having lived beyond their means for the past 20 years.

He pointed out that New Zealand was running a large current account deficit – which means we spend a lot more than we earn – and that we must achieve economic growth by earning rather than spending.

I thought this was pretty rich, coming from a senior spokesman for a sector that in recent years has done all it could to encourage people to borrow and spend.

At the same time I felt vindicated, because I have been saying for years to anyone prepared to listen, which usually means my long-suffering spouse, that the supposedly buoyant economy of the past few years was largely an illusion, fuelled by debt.

Economic activity in New Zealand has been driven by consumption rather than production. Much of that consumption has been financed with credit provided by banks and dodgy finance companies, many of which no longer exist. The result has been a huge burden of national debt.

Oh, I should also mention the other result of all that credit: a crazily overpriced property sector – again, driven by banks and other lenders – which is only now slowly regaining equilibrium.

All that money we ploughed into property was money that could have been invested in the primary industry sector – still this country’s ace card, though people seem unwilling to grasp it – or in the small, sophisticated, export-focused niche enterprises that New Zealanders do so well.

I am old enough to remember the days when you had to grovel to get mortgage finance and bank managers would laugh you off the premises if you had less than 25 percent deposit to put on a house. When banks start thrusting money at people who have no savings record but want to buy expensive homes, it’s surely a warning sign as ominous as the proverbial Wall Street shoeshine boy giving share tips.

I sometimes wonder whether it might still be true, as Robert Muldoon famously said, that most New Zealanders wouldn’t know a deficit if they fell over it. As a nation we are probably more economically literate than at any time in our past, yet we are still easily gulled.

Because the government’s accounts were in pretty good shape, at least until last year, we convinced ourselves the economy was healthy. Naturally the government, eager to be re-elected, was happy for us to remain in a state of delusion. In the meantime, private debt was running out of control.

While the booming property market made a lot of people giddily rich on paper, the export sector – the real source of prosperity – has been under-performing for years. Our productivity is lousy by international standards, our per capita GDP having steadily fallen behind that of other OECD countries.

Hardly anyone paused to dwell on these disconcerting facts, for two reasons. The first is that we were too busy taking overseas holidays, speculating in property and indulging in a spending binge – all on borrowed money.

The other is that we had a Labour government that had little understanding of business or appreciation of its importance. It was too busy pursuing its Utopian social agenda.

It probably didn’t help that the “experts” to whom the media habitually turn for economic analysis are mostly bank economists who are not necessarily well-placed to provide a balanced, “big picture” view of the economy, and whose views are inevitably conditioned by the interests of their employers.

Having said all that, it’s clear that New Zealand seems to be in a much stronger position to cope with the global financial downturn than many larger economies.

Though they stand accused of behaving irresponsibly by placing their profits ahead of New Zealand’s economic interests, our banks have been well managed to the extent that they are not falling over, unlike those of Britain and the US.

And despite woeful prognostications, I note that most of our listed companies are still announcing profits – and in some cases, quite healthy ones.

A sense of perspective is helpful. There’s no reason to panic because some companies’ profits have dropped. At least they’re still making money, which is more than can be said for the likes of General Motors.

Much has been made of the plight of Fisher and Paykel, which is said to be an “iconic” New Zealand company. But I fail to see why the taxpayer should bail F&P out, as has been suggested.

F&P has enjoyed many good years. For decades it prospered behind the walls of Fortress New Zealand, which kept prospective overseas competitors at bay using tariffs and other protectionist measures.

The great Kiwi whiteware company showed its appreciation of this generous treatment by ruthlessly pursuing a policy of retail price maintenance, which prohibited appliance dealers from discounting F&P products, and by refusing to allow retailers to stock competitors’ products. The consumer was well and truly suckered.

Recessions may be painful, but they do serve the useful function of weeding out companies that have become inefficient or lost their way. As for GM in the US, so for Fisher and Paykel here. The company took a gamble relocating much of its manufacturing overseas (so much for loyalty) and lost. Why should taxpayers have to pay for its miscalculation?

As it is, the world economic crisis is penalising the very people who have done all the right things – those who have saved and invested prudently. These people will be doubly punished in the coming years for the folly of those who were not so careful.

Not only have returns on their investments slumped, thanks to deflationary pressures pushing down interest rates as credit shrinks, but conscientious savers will share the tax burden arising from state bailouts of failed institutions and massive public spending on infrastructure as governments try to protect jobs and revive floundering economies.

In their desperation to forestall complete collapse, governments the world over – New Zealand included – are sending out signals that run counter to logic. By guaranteeing deposits in dodgy institutions they are undermining natural market forces such as risk, which serves as a vital check on foolish behaviour.

I’m no economist, but this seems crazy to me. If we must have a recession, let’s at least use it to purge the economy of tired, incompetent, greedy, complacent and untrustworthy enterprises.

That will lay the foundations for a healthy economy to carry us through to the next crisis. This is the “boom and bust” cycle by which capitalism – which is still unarguably the economic system most capable of delivering prosperity and freedom – periodically recharges itself.

1 comment:

Steve Withers said...

I, too, could see the debt tsunami coming to engulf us. The clearest thought I had on the matter - and the I use it as a personal benchmark - was the day in March 2003 that Bush invaded Iraq.

At that point, the United States committed itself irrevocably to monster deficits, rising interest rates (to fund same) and unstable oil prices for years to come. Peak oil is icing on the cake. All of these would start slowly, accumulate over time and then that would be that.

That week, my wife and I decided to sell our houses and buy a farm and to remain as free of debt as possible. The crunch wouldn't come for some time, but we didn't want to be caught out.

As it happened, the dairy boom saw us sell that farm after almost 4 years for almost double what we paid for it. That was April last year. Later than I had hoped, but perfect in the event. Before Sanlu and before the crash in August. I wanted it gone by Xmas '08 as I could see the clouds gathering on the global financial horizon.

Interesting you blame Labour (in part) as it was Labour who resisted the National Party (and the Dom Post and the NZ Herald) campaign for tax cuts - despite surveys showing year-on-year that most Kiwis weren't too fused about tax cuts.

National would have been into the business-first-and-best mythology boots and all had they been the government. Labour was more restrained and moer measured. Cullen put the state's books in good order for the first time in a generation. Our situation now would be arguably be FAR worse had a National government been in power.

Of course, National is now working overtime to wreck all that in the mistaken belied that tax-cuts will spur consumption and thus a recovery. They won't.

As you rightly point out, we need to produce things, not consume more.

But the problem we have there is that the wages paid to the people who work in the primary producer sector too often are terrible. Their hours and working conditions are also often terrible. I could bore you with stories about people people working on dairy farms around Foxton.....working 14-hour days and starting at 4am and getting one day off in a fortnight. If that is New Zealand's bright future, you can have it. I'm outta here.

I don't want to be a slaving peasant in a land run by the farm-owning aristocracy who use parliament to enrich themselves and impoverish everyone else.

That's where National's policies will lead us. All power to the employer and screw the workers.

Read the laws they have passed recently. one can come to no other conclusion.

John Key promised to improve wages in NZ and has instead done everything in his power to seem then curtailed.

But then, having watched the National party for almost 30 years I know they are the party that can be relied upon to do the wrong things for all the right reasons. They belive a lot of things that simply aren't true....and the global catastrophe how upon us proof the very policies they advocate don't actually work.

But they can't see that. They never do.