Rock star economy or one hit wonder?
A version of this blog appeared on OECD Insights.
The broken record of recent years, “Global Financial Crisis”, is finally giving way to a classic hit about long term prospects. While it is good to see the gradual strengthening in economic growth, there is still the major challenge of lifting the long-run drivers of growth and living standards, especially given the “grey bump” of population aging in developed countries. Productivity is the most important of these drivers.
A new paper written by the OECD Economics Department and published by the New Zealand Productivity Commission challenges the way we traditionally think about lifting productivity. This paper looks at the case of New Zealand and shows that the conventional explanations of investment in physical capital and years of schooling don’t explain New Zealand’s sizable productivity gap. Yes, these are still key areas with room for improvement. But the paper points to new avenues for increasing productivity, which will have important consequences for policymakers throughout the OECD.
At the start of this year, HSBC described New Zealand as a “rock-star” economy, with growth set to outpace most developed country peers, partly due to ongoing terms of trade increases and the Christchurch rebuild. Labour productivity has also improved over the last few years and we have a high proportion of the workforce employed overall.
But the bigger picture remains a concern. Labour productivity growth throughout the 2000s and post-Global Financial Crisis has been low in international comparison despite a sizeable gap in productivity levels.
As the paper shows, New Zealand’s broad policy settings should generate GDP per capita 20 per cent above the OECD average, but the actual result is more than 20 per cent below average. We may be punching above our weight, but that’s only because we are in the wrong weight division!
According to the OECD, New Zealand has reasonably good policy settings, and ranks towards the top of the class on product market regulation and other indicators. Our paradox is that this hasn’t been translated into productivity performance. Canada and Denmark are in a similar situation. It seems that some of the conventional reasons for poor productivity, such as a lack of investment in physical capital or low average education, can’t fully explain what is going on.
Instead, the paper points the finger at our weak international connections, which account for over half of New Zealand’s productivity gap relative to the OECD average. New Zealand firms face reduced access to large markets and limited participation in global value chains, where the transfer of advanced technologies now often occurs. Indeed, global value chains – which can require intensive interaction and just-in-time delivery across borders – may have worsened the impact of New Zealand’s geographic isolation on trade in goods.
Most of the rest of the New Zealand’s productivity gap reflects underinvestment in knowledge-based capital. In particular, R&D undertaken by the business sector is among the lowest in the OECD, reducing the capacity for innovation and the ability of firms to absorb new ideas developed elsewhere. The quality of management is also low, with poorly run firms surviving for longer than they would in more competitive economies. This reduces the ability of firms to adjust and extract maximum productivity gains from new ideas and technologies.
These reasons for New Zealand’s poor productivity track record are interrelated – international connections and innovation go hand-in-hand. To overcome the tyranny of distance, we should be harnessing ICT and creating the ideal conditions for knowledge-based companies to grow and participate in global value chains. The cloud-based accounting software provider Xero is a good example of the new business model which can succeed in global markets.
Knowledge-based capital now plays a larger role in production than ever before. But as Alain de Serres, Naomitsu Yashiro and Hervé Boulhol point out, the challenge in harnessing the increasing returns of knowledge-based capital are considerable and the costs of policy mistakes may be increasing. Adding to that, New Zealand’s small size and great distance from international markets magnify the impact of any policy weakness.
The Commission was set up in 2011 to investigate specific issues relating to New Zealand’s productivity. Three years on, our experience has been that every time we conduct an inquiry – be it on housing affordability, international freight transport, local government regulation, the services sector, or regulatory institutions and practices – we discover considerable room for improvement.
The Commission is working on different aspects of New Zealand’s policy settings to improve productivity and wellbeing. With small domestic markets, New Zealand would benefit from greater integration into global value chains in innovation-intensive industries with fast-moving technological frontiers. That is easier said than done, but our small size means we can be agile and the window of opportunity for global economic integration irrespective of physical distance is slowly opening.
Image: Guy Body / New Zealand Herald, used with permission