• Travelling Further Down A No-Exit Road

    By the time of the 2008 election, New Zealand had already been mired in our own home-grown recession for nearly a year. A response that would get the economy moving again quickly was clearly needed.

    That urgency was reinforced by the global financial crisis that shook the world in the later part of 2008. Our Australian-owned banking system was mercifully affected only mildly by the turmoil, but the increased recessionary pressures across the economy as a whole made it all the more imperative that our new government should act decisively.

    We waited in vain for that decisive action. Apart from a largely abortive “jobs summit” in early 2009, the government seemed content to sit out the crisis, waiting for others to bring the recession to an end – and this, despite the buoyancy of our main export markets and a rise to record levels in our main commodity prices.

    The government’s main preoccupation was not –so it seemed – to get the unemployed back to work, so that incomes, purchasing power and demand would rise. They focused instead on government debt – surprisingly since, at just 23.4% of GDP, New Zealand’s government debt was one of the three or four lowest in the OECD.

    They asserted that – successful though the Labour government had been in bringing that percentage down – it was now their main focus to get it down further. Only in that way, they believed, would confidence return, recovery from recession be achieved, a credit downgrade be avoided, and interest rates be held at low levels.

    In expressing such faith in what the Nobel prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman, calls the “confidence fairy”, our government was following down a track mapped out by the leaders of other Western countries – those same leaders who had presided over the global financial crisis in the first place.

    Let’s be clear. Manageable levels of government debt are clearly desirable. The question is not whether that should be the goal, or at least one of them, but rather whether the government’s chosen method of achieving the goal has been effective.

    Three years later, how have we done? Did the “confidence fairy” appear and work her magic? The answer is sadly disappointing.

    Despite the priority they had, the government’s finances remain in a parlous state. As Brian Gaynor pointed out recently, the government’s cumulative deficit over three years will rise to $35.5 billion, compared to a surplus of $35.6 billion under the Labour government. As a result, government debt will rise to 37.7% of GDP. Why has this happened?

    The answer is really a matter of common sense. The main drag on government finances is the loss of revenue in an economy that refuses to grow out of recession – and, as this week’s figures show, still does. You don’t solve that problem by slowing the economy still further, by cutting what could have been a sensible investment in getting the economy moving again.

    The government, in other words, backed the wrong horse. If they had concentrated on getting people back to work, so that they earned and spent more, the economy would not only have been more buoyant, but so too would government revenues. The deficit may have been higher in the short term, as the investment in our future was made, but it would not have been so persistently high now and over the longer term. Cutting government deficits does not promote recovery; it is the other way round.

    Not only has the government failed to control its own deficits and debt. It has also increased the country’s debt, with the result that we have suffered the credit downgrades the government warned against, while the interest rates we pay to overseas lenders will rise.

    It is cold comfort to know that we have not been alone in making these mistakes. In many other Western countries, the expected appearance, in response to austerity and cutbacks, of the “confidence fairy” has not materialised. The Conservatives in Britain, the eurozone’s leaders, the Republicans in the United States, have all pinned their hopes on austerity – and, as those hopes have been dashed, their only self-defeating remedy is to inflict yet more pain.

    The “confidence fairy” seems unimpressed by more blood-letting, to which the nearest analogy is the use of leeches by medieval doctors to bleed their sick patients.

    We may feel sorry for the Greeks or Italians, but we have suffered the same dead-end policies that they have had to endure – albeit, given the size of the eurozone economy, on a smaller scale.

    We, too, have been driven by ideological tunnel vision down a one-way, no-exit road, unable to go forward or back – not a comfortable situation with a second recession bearing down on us.

    And, in case the we try to blame our lamentable performance on the global financial crisis or the Christchurch earthquake, let’s be clear that our government blew its best chance of pulling us out of recession well before the full impact of those factors was felt – a point not depending on hindsight but made by me and others at the time.

    If the exodus across the Tasman is to be stemmed, we surely cannot afford another wasted three years.

    Bryan Gould

    5 December 2011