Beware the seductive simplicity of the Spirit Level

I see that the Spirit Level authors are in town, and as a result there was a recent Herald article took aim at income inequality in New Zealand, relying strongly on the book ‘The Spirit Level’.  A conversation about the inequalities society believes are fair, or at least justifiable, is a good thing.  However, the Spirit Level’s claims that simply targeting measures like the Gini coefficient will make everyone better off is a misleading, and dangerous, place to start this conversation.

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VSR: Very silly regulation?

When discussing it’s new monetary policy Labour was keen to explain why they felt a change was necessary, and why a variable Kiwisaver contribution rate should be investigated.  However, to investigate such a policy it is important to ask some specific questions – this is what Gareth Kiernan did in this article (Infometrics link).

In announcing its new monetary policy proposals, Labour has shown an admirable ability to think outside the square. …. Unfortunately, there are a lot of problems with Labour’s idea and the assumptions behind it.

His list of 10 questions are:

  1. Should KiwiSaver be compulsory?
  2. Does New Zealand really have a savings problem?
  3. How good is Australia’s compulsory savings scheme for their economy?
  4. Do compulsory savings programmes actually increase savings anyway? 
  5. What effect do compulsory and limited-access savings have on the robustness of financing decisions?
  6. Is New Zealand’s permanent current account deficit really a problem?
  7. Are our ‘high’ interest rates really caused by our rigid monetary policy framework?
  8. How much of our mortgage interest payments go overseas?
  9. Does the export sector really need a lower exchange rate?
  10. What about compliance costs for businesses?

His answers to these questions give a case for why the VSR may not be good policy at all.  What are your thoughts?




Monetary policy 2.0?

Labour wants to upgrade monetary policy, preserving inflation targeting but asking the Reserve Bank to reduce persistent external deficits. To help, the Reserve Bank might get to vary contributions to an enhanced Kiwisaver scheme and go a little further with macro-prudential policy. Getting kiwis to save more is probably a good thing. If successful, interest rates would be lower and ease the exchange rate a little. But the evidence-base is weak and there are many leaks since implementation and accountability frameworks are not clear. Better to leave the Reserve Bank to do what they do best – implementing flexible inflation targeting.

The problem as defined

Many commentators point out that New Zealand has high real interest rates and that the exchange rate is overvalued relative to an economy less reliant on borrowing from abroad (see below). That makes our exports less competitive and promotes consumption of imported goods over domestically manufactured goods.

The problem: high interest rates and an overvalued exchange rate

The problem: high interest rates and an overvalued exchange rate


Our persistent negative external balance – that nets our borrowing and imports from overseas against exports – largely reflects our savings choices. Of course, an external balance can also reflect imports of capital equipment for investment in the real economy but most likely reducing the external balance would reflect a useful rebalancing of economic conditions for New Zealand.
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Power prices: A rolling list of links

It appears the people very much care about power prices, and that the organisation of the electricity industry is something people are discussing.  It is an interesting issue, but large chunks of it are outside my area of knowledge (even moreso than what I usually write about!).  Furthermore, unless we get a guest blogger in to write on the issue (email if you are keen) our current blogging line up isn’t going to cover this.

But we shouldn’t ignore it.  Here are some links I’ve spotted post EA Report – feel free to mention other links about the issue in the comments, and I’ll throw them up here.  [Our discussions pre-report can be found here, here, and here.  Also, neat post from 2009 I don't feel I have anything to add to these at this point].

A set of three articles on Stuff with people arguing details about the Electricity Authority Report (here, here, and here)

Business NZ.


Gareth Morgan.


Note:  John Small has comments and links on earlier discussion here.

Housing shortage: When is a shortage not a shortage

It is received wisdom that Auckland has had a housing “shortage” for a prolonged period of time due to insufficient supply.  However, on the face of it this is a bit strange as:

  1. Residential investment:  Yes building rates have been low during the past 7 years, but the value of residential investment in the prior 7 years was very high.  The “volume” was lower, but what does that mean (we’ll come back to it).
  2. Growth in rents have been low.  Low low low.

In this way many people have, justifiably, questioned the idea of a shortage.

However, there is one potential explanation that could match both these facts and still give us a “shortage” that can help to drive the high price for housing – a fundamental imbalance in the supply of “types” of housing.

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Immigration and monetary policy: Let’s be a bit careful

Note:  I realise I have been writing about Labour’s policies and not other parties – I have been very busy, and only write about things when I get a chance.  If you want me to write about any specific party policy, email me, and I will try to have a go :)

Labour is talking about varying migrant visa approvals in a counter-cyclical fashion, as a way of helping out the RBNZ with monetary policy.  This bears some relations with stated thinking fro some members of the RBNZ [Update: Michael Reddell, the author of the paper, justifiably pointed out in the comments that the Labour type policy is not related to his work - and that my statement was unclear.  He is completely correct - his work and a counter-cyclical visa instrument are about different things, an important point to keep in mind!].  Now this isn’t about the level of migrants coming in – only the timing – so this isn’t a way of us shutting our borders.  I would like to keep the two issues separate in this instance, so we can think about the specific policy more clearly.

Furthermore, the focus here is very much on short term variation with regards to monetary policy – not a long term view of high interest rates and the real exchange rate.  This issue is much more contentious IMO, and deserves separate discussion.

Much younger (but far less charming) me, at the start of the blog, noted how inward migration boosts “demand” and “supply” in a monetary policy sense, so we need to consider our arguments carefully!  So the idea is that, when migrants first appear they have to set up in NZ and may not get integrated into the workforce straight away.  As a result, the first thing they do is “increase demand”.  The demand for housing, for building housing, for buying other non-tradable services pushes up the interest rate (although we also have to ask how they are getting the income to provide this demand – is it that they are bringing a capital inflow with them and this is the driver?).

As a result, lowering visa quotas when the economy is running hot and lifting visa quotas when the economy is cold could help to limit variability in interest rates right?  Well, not so fast:

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