Category Archives: Economics 101

ARE WE AS BRAVE AS LABOUR IN THE 1930s?- Bryan Gould.

New Zealanders like to think that we are, in most respects, up with – if not actually ahead of – the play. Sadly, however, as a new government is about to emerge, there is no sign that our politicians and policymakers are aware of recent developments in a crucial area of policy, and that, as a result, we are in danger of missing out on opportunities that others have been ready to take.

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The story starts, at least in its most recent form, with two important developments. First, there is the now almost universal recognition that the vast majority of money in circulation is not – as most people once believed – notes and coins issued on behalf of the government by the Reserve Bank, but is actually created by the commercial banks through the credit they advance, using bank entries rather than cash, and usually on mortgage.

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The truth of this proposition, so long denied, is now explicitly accepted by the Bank of England, and was – as long ago as 1994 – explained in a letter written by our own Reserve Bank to an enquirer, and stating in terms that 97% of the money included in the usually used definition of money known as M3 is created by the commercial banks.

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The proposition is endorsed by the world’s leading monetary economists – Lord Adair Turner, the former chair of the UK’s Financial Services Authority and Professor Richard Werner of Southampton University, to name but two. These men are not snake-oil salesmen, to be easily dismissed. They have been joined by leading financial journalists, such as Martin Wolf of the Financial Times.

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The second development was the use by western governments around the world of “quantitative easing” in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. “Quantitative easing” was a sanitised term to describe what is often pejoratively termed “printing money” – but, whatever it is called, it was new money created at the behest of the government and used to bail out the banks by adding it to their balance sheets.

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These two developments, not surprisingly, generated a number of unavoidable questions about monetary policy. If banks could create billions in new money for their own profit-making purposes, (they make their money by charging interest on the money they create), why could governments not do the same, but for public purposes, such as investment in new infrastructure and productive capacity?

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And if governments were indeed to create new money through “quantitative easing”, why could that new money not be applied to purposes other than shoring up the banks?

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The conventional answer to such questions (and the one invariably given in New Zealand by supposed experts in recent times) is that “printing money” will be inflationary – though it is never explained why it is miraculously non-inflationary when the new money is created by bank loans on mortgage or is applied to bail out the banks.

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But, in any case, the master economist, John Maynard Keynes, had got there long before the closed minds and had carefully explained that new money could not be inflationary if it was applied to productive purposes so that new output matched the increased money supply. Nor was there any reason why the new money should not precede the increased output, provided that the increased output materialised in due course.

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Those timorous souls who doubt the Keynesian argument might care to look instead at practical experience. Franklin Delano Roosevelt used exactly this technique to increase investment in American industry in the year or two before the US entered the Second World War. It was that substantial boost to American industrial capacity that was the decisive factor in allowing the Allies to win the war.

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And the great Japanese (and Keynesian) economist, Osamu Shimomura, (almost unknown in the West), took the same approach in advising the post-war Japanese government on how to re-build Japanese industry in a country devastated by defeat and nuclear bombs.

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The current Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is a follower of Shimomura. His policies, reapplied today, have Japan growing, after years of stagnation, at 4% per annum and with minimal inflation.

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Our leaders, however, including luminaries of both right and left, some with experience of senior roles in managing our economy – and in case it is thought impolite to name them I leave it to you to guess who they are – prefer to remain in their fearful self-imposed shackles, ignoring not only the views of experts and the experience of braver leaders in other countries and earlier times, but – surprisingly enough – denying even our own home-grown New Zealand experience.

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Many of today’s generation will have forgotten or be unaware of the brave and successful initiative taken by our Prime Minister in the 1930s – the great Michael Joseph Savage. He created new money with which he built thousands of state houses, thereby bringing an end to the Great Depression in New Zealand and providing decent houses for young families (my own included) who needed them.

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Who among our current leaders would disown that hugely valuable legacy?

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Bryan Gould, 2 October 2017

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BryanGould.com

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Shares v houses. The winner is clear – Mary Holm.

Question:
You will no doubt have read Brian Gaynor’s recent column in which he says: “Thirty years ago, on Friday, September 18, 1987, the long-standing NZX benchmark index reached an all-time high of 3968.89. This capital index, which is now called the S&P/NZX 50 index, has never returned to this level and is still 8 per cent below its 1987 high.”
This doesn’t quite fit with your mantra that you have to be in the share market for at least 10 years to avoid the lows, does it? However, there have been good dividends on a lot of shares along the way, so all is not totally lost.
Will you admit now that property (including rents) has been the better investment over the past four decades?
Still, I wouldn’t be putting any bets on the property market continuing the ridiculous run of the past few years over the next decade. For the sake of our children, I hope it levels out for a while and gets back to a reasonable ratio to median income.

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No, I won’t “admit” any such thing. As you say, the index Gaynor writes about doesn’t include dividends. And that makes a bigger difference than you apparently realise.

Our graph shows this clearly. Although the New Zealand share index excluding dividends (S&P NZX50 Capital) has indeed gone nowhere since the 87 crash, the index that includes dividends (S&P NZX50 Gross) has quadrupled. And it would have grown a bit more if there had been an index that included dividends in the 1980s. We had only the Barclays Top 40 – which excluded dividends – until 1991.

Why on earth would you exclude dividends in share returns? Some people spend dividends rather than reinvesting them, but they’re still part of the return. Excluding dividends is like excluding rent in rental property returns.

But hang on a minute. Isn’t that what the graph does? The QV Housing Index shows growth of detached housing valuations. Why haven’t we included rent?

When you stop to think about it, that’s not doable. There’s data on average rents. But unlike shares, rental property comes with ongoing expenses such as rates, insurance and maintenance, which can be huge when you have to replace a roof or something.

Also, most landlords – except those who have owned a rental for many years – pay mortgage interest. In fact, many landlords find that expenses including interest total more than rent, and they make ongoing losses. And the tendency for that to happen will increase when mortgage interest rises. Their investments make sense only when they sell the property at a profit.

Taking all this into account, there’s no way to come up with representative numbers for net rental income. On average they will probably be positive, but how big?

All we can say is that the graph shows total returns on New Zealand shares since the end of 1979 are twice as big as house price increases. Shares look a better bet to me.

Okay, you might say, but the graph also shows that shares are much more volatile, adding to risk.

True, most landlords take on a different sort of risk, by borrowing to invest – something that few share investors do.

Borrowing ups the ante. If the investment goes well, you get gains on the bank’s money as well as your own. But what if you’re forced to sell – perhaps because you lose your job – when house prices are down? If your mortgage is bigger than the proceeds of your sale, you can end up with no investment and owing the bank. It happens.

Even if you sell the property at a gain, does it more than cover your losses over the years because of interest and expenses?

The added risk from borrowing can certainly make rental property a bigger worry than shares.

And there are other ways that shares are less risky:

• If you also own your home, your investments are in a different market.

• It’s much easier to spread your risk by owning many different shares than many different properties.

• It’s also much easier to invest offshore, which also spreads risk.

• You can easily drip-feed money into shares, removing the risk that you invest the lot at the top of a cycle.

• If you need some money, you can sell any portion of your share investments. Even if you own several rental properties, you can cash them in only in big lumps.

On top of all that, investing in a wide range of shares or a share fund – the best way to do it – is much less hassle than a rental property. You’re not going to get the 2am phone call from the tenants saying the washing machine has flooded the house, or the news that your tenants have used the house as a P lab.

Then there are the disputes. In 2016, 16,600 landlords and 2300 tenants made complaints to the Tenancy Tribunal, and many more were resolved in mediation. You don’t get that with shares.

Our graph also shows:

• Sometimes the New Zealand and international share markets (MSCI World Accumulated Index) move roughly together, but sometimes they are quite different. New Zealand had the 1980s boom and bust, and world markets had the turn-of-the-century tech bubble bursting. It’s wise to have some of your share investments in local shares and some offshore.

• You write of my “mantra” that nearly always a share market will gain over a 10-year period. In the graph that’s generally true, but with some exceptions. If you invest just before a crash – in the local market in 1987, or the world market in 2000 – you are barely ahead a decade later, although things come right quite soon after.

You can get around this problem by drip-feeding money into shares over time, as happens automatically with KiwiSaver. Then only a small proportion of your money will “fail” the 10-year test.

NZ Herald

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Stealing From Our Children. The real dilemma of growth and the need for New Economics – Kamal K. Kothari & Chitra Chandrasekhar. 

“In a very rapidly changing scenario, with a burgeoning population, fast-changing demographic profile, and growth aspirations of people around the world putting pressure on natural resources, our economic thoughts and practices have to change.”

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RE-THINKING ECONOMICS

In the beginning there was nothing, no human beings, no animals, no trees, no oceans, no earth, no sun, no stars, not even space or time. A quantum fluctuation leading to the Big Bang almost 14 billion years ago sowed the seeds of the Universe and space and time, as we know it. In the initial phase, stars, black holes, and galaxies were formed. The Earth, our home planet, was born almost 10 billion years later, about 4 billion years ago. It was then a fiery ball and took almost 1 billion years to cool down. Seeds of life sprouted about 3 billion years ago, some say spontaneously, while others hold a view through panspermia, no one knows for sure.

While the earth was cooling, life forms were evolving and the planet was undergoing cataclysmic changes. Continents were shifting and breaking apart, ocean floors were rising and sinking, volcanoes were erupting. Forests, animals, fishes, amphibians came and disappeared, so much so that according to some, 99.9% of the species in existence since beginning of life on Earth have ceased to exist. These changes, over a period of hundreds of millions of years, left us the legacy of natural resources—coal, crude oil, natural gas— and minerals so necessary for industrial processes and evolution of a technological civilisation.

Life forms continued to evolve. Humans came on the scene. No one is sure, but it is said that human sub-species evolved about half a million years ago in the African Savannah. With human civilisations, human aspiration too continued to develop and grow, perhaps slowly, if we were to compare it with the developments in the last 100 years.

The advent of the Industrial Revolution, which started in Europe around 1760, brought in its wake a transformation. Progress brought about by technology encouraged a shift from primarily an agricultural world to an industrial one. Rapid shifts took place in many parts of the world, mainly Europe and North America, and in the earlier part of the last century, in Japan. Such shifts are now taking place in parts of Asia, mainly India and China, Latin America, and Africa. These changes, by themselves great achievements for mankind, have led to a burgeoning population and major demographic changes. An off-shoot of this technological progress has been that more intensive and concentrated methods of food production are required for supporting technological societies and longer human life spans, stemming from better healthcare. 

About the time of the birth of Jesus Christ, the planet supported a population of about 200 million human beings, which, by the early 19th century i.e. in a period of about 1,830 years touched a billion people. In another 185 years, we have expanded 7-fold to over 7.2 billion people and we are still continuing to expand. The advent of technological changes and exploitation of natural resources has improved the living conditions of human beings, and on an average a human being lives better, is better fed, and better educated than any other time in the history of mankind.

All this has been brought about by scientific advances in different fields such as Quantum Physics, Relativity, Material Sciences, Chemistry, Agricultural Sciences, and so on and so forth.

The list is endless.

However, a large population and better living standards have created their own challenges in fields as diverse as economics, social sciences, ecology, and environment. At the heart of these is the rapid exploitation of natural resources, be it in the form of energy-generating resources like coal or crude oil, mineral resources like ores, or environmental resources, which are being degraded in the pursuit of economic growth.

These issues are well known, and have been discussed in various fora for decades now. The first Club of Rome report, Limits to Growth, which was published in 1972, raises many issues pertinent to these changes. That landmark report and subsequent Club of Rome reports, which generated extensive debates in the 1970s, now lie peacefully buried in the archives of libraries around the world. While these issues are still relevant, it is not the intent of this book to reiterate them. 

Along with technological progress, economic theories evolved as well. A key aspect of economic theories was better and more efficient utilisation of resources, be it capital, land or labour. These concepts and theories optimized utilisation of resources and went a long way in improving the living standards of mankind across the world.

These economic theories, which have served us well for many decades now, need a relook, particularly from the point of view of sustainability. If we lived in a world where resources were infinite or virtually limitless in relation to our consumption, we would have had no issues. But that is indeed not the case, more so, as our population and resource consumption have been expanding exponentially. Using current methods of economic analysis, capital allocation really promotes gross long-term inefficiencies in our resource utilisation. If we continue with these approaches, our societies would become unsustainable.

The authors have long held the view that not only do our economic theories lead to unsustainable development, but really amount to stealing from our future generations. We compare our society to a rich man who sells his family silver to sustain his lifestyle and in the end leaves practically nothing for his children. What is worse in our case is that we would leave our children a huge debt, which they would have to pay. This book will provide enough evidence that our economic and capital allocation models do the same thing: promote current consumption at the cost of future generations. The problem is further compounded by the short-sightedness of the political class in most nations of the world where the focus seems to be the next year, the next election, or in non-democratic societies, growth in personal wealth or stature. Similarly, the corporate world around us generally thinks of the next quarter, the next shareholders’ meet, and the bonuses, which the top managers can persuade the Boards and shareholders to pay them. Few think of the long-term strategies for the company, and fewer still about long-term sustainability issues.

Most businesses use capital allocation models to optimise their working. Similar concepts are, at least theoretically, used by countries (where their leaders are not driven by political considerations, which is not often) to utilise national resources. Few realise the pitfalls of such models.  So wide is the use of these models that working of all banks would come to a standstill if somehow these formulae were to be erased from their computers.

Capital allocation models are generally skewed in favour of current consumption. They place a premium on current consumption and earlier use of the resources vis-à-vis saving them for the future generations. For example, if we can pump a barrel of oil now and its price is US$100, our benefit (less the pumping out cost, which we for the sake of simplicity assume to be zero) is US$100. But if we leave the same barrel of oil underground so that someone else can use it 50 years later at a 10% cost of capital, the value of the same barrel of oil today is 85 cents. If we were more farsighted and do not use it for 100 years, the present value falls to 0.7 cents. So our incentive is in using the resource as fast as possible. Of course, in doing this analysis we conveniently forget that nature took several hundred million years to generate the same barrel of oil.

Another way of looking at the same situation is, if, for the sake of argument, through some technological breakthrough it is possible to extract 100 barrels of oil after 50 years, but if the field were to be exploited now, only 1 barrel could be extracted and the remaining 99 barrels are lost forever. Managers would still find it desirable to extract that one barrel of oil now, notwithstanding the fact that future generations would lose 99 barrels of oil. This example may sound extreme, but analogous decisions are routinely taken globally. As a result, the rate of consumption of natural resources is so high that the world reserves of many key resources would be exhausted in a couple of generations. As these resources get exhausted, their availability would decline, although this fall would be generally gradual. But a fall in resource availability would impact industrial production as well as all the consequences that would inevitably result from it.

Everybody would be impacted. No one would be spared. But youngsters in their twenties and thirties, with 30 to 40 years of working life remaining, would be most affected. Their hopes, aspiration and dreams of a comfortable and peaceful retirement after years and years of hard work would stand shattered as money, not backed by availability of goods and services, would lose value as its purchasing power falls.

The aim of this book is to bring out the deep lacunae in our economic thought and practices. The existing economic practices were developed when natural resources were plentiful, the global population small, and natural resource consumption minuscule in relation to the reserves. But in a very rapidly changing scenario, with a burgeoning population, fast-changing demographic profile, and growth aspirations of people around the world putting pressure on natural resources, our economic thoughts and practices have to change.

No change is without associated pain. We are all comfortable with the present thought processes, which predict steady and sustained growth based on the implicit assumption that resources are unlimited. But the reality is that we live in a finite world with limited resources, and after that reality is factored in, none of these projections hold true. And the sooner we realise this, the better it is and perhaps less painful too.

This book is divided into two sections. The first section, The Context, highlights the world we live in and how fast we are consuming our resources and impacting the environment. Some readers may find The Context grim and depressing, but we have painted the picture as we see it based on the best available information. We would request such readers bear with us or simply move on to the next part, The New Economic Paradigm, and then come back to The Context. In the second part, The New Economic Paradigm, we have suggested a new approach to our economic theories, which would lead to a more sustainable world.

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“Humans are extremely intelligent and yet extremely foolish. They have failed to perceive the inter-linkages in the Web of Life; remove a few links and the Web could collapse, threatening their own existence.”

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Stealing From Our Children. The real dilemma of growth and the need for New Economics – Kamal K. Kothari and Chitra Chandrasekhar. 

get it from Amazon.com


The new American Dream: rent your home from a hedge fund – Simon Black. 

About a month ago I joined the Board of Directors of a publicly-traded company that invests in US real estate.

The position brings a lot of insight into what’s happening in the US housing market. And from what I’m seeing, the transformation that’s taking place today is extraordinary.

Buying and renting out single-family homes has long been the mainstay investment of small, individual investors.

The big banks and hedge funds pretty much monopolize everything else. They own the stock market. They own the bond market. They own all the commercial real estate. They even own the farmland.

Single-family homes were one of the last bastions of investment freedom for the little guy.

But all that’s changing now.

Last week a huge merger was announced between Invitation Homes (owned by private equity giant Blackstone Group) and Starwood Waypoint Homes (owned by real estate giant Starwood Capital).

If the deal goes through, the combined entity would be the largest owner of single-family homes in the United States with a portfolio worth over $20 billion.

And this is only the latest merger in an ongoing trend.

Three years ago, for example, American Homes 4 Rent bought Beazer Pre-Owned Rental Homes, creating another enormous player. A few months later, Starwood Waypoint bought Colony American Homes.

And of course, Blackstone was one of the first institutional investors to start buying distressed homes, forking over around $10 billion on houses since the Great Financial Crisis.

At one point, Blackstone was reportedly spending $150 million a week on houses.

There are some medium-tier players coming into the market as well. A friend of mine runs a fund that owns about 2,000 rental homes in Texas, and he’s buying every property he can find.

I called him for his perspective on what’s happening in the housing market. Here’s what he told me:

There are lots of little guys assembling portfolios of 10-100 homes. And I like to buy these guys out because they have much higher funding costs than us.

And, eventually, as we get larger, medium-sized funds like mine will get bought out by Blackstone and the other mega players.

In short, medium-sized funds are buying up all the little guys. And mega-funds like Blackstone are buying up all the medium-sized funds.

This means there’s essentially an ‘arms race’ building among the world’s biggest funds to control the market, squeezing small, individual investors out of the housing market.

Then there’s the situation for renters.

US Census Bureau statistics show that, over the past decade, the number of rental households has been rising steadily while the number of homeowner households has been falling.

In other words, the American Dream of owning your own home has been fading.

It’s easy to understand why:

US consumer debt is at an all-time high of over $1 trillion (mostly credit card debt), with an additional $1.3 trillion in federal student loans.

Americans… especially younger people, are far too heavily indebted to be able to save any money for a down payment.

Moreover, despite all the hoopla about the low unemployment rate in the US, wages are totally stagnant.

(Plus bear in mind that most of the jobs created have been for waiters and bartenders!)

So the average guy isn’t making any more money, or able to save anything… all while home prices soar to record levels as major funds gobble up the supply.

This means that the new reality in America, especially for young people, is that if you’re lucky enough to not be living in your parents’ basement, you’ll be relegated to renting your house from Blackstone.

But… there is some interesting opportunity in all of this.

With a supply of more than 17 million rental homes in the United States, there’s a LONG way to go for this trend to play out. We’re still in the early stages of the mega-fund consolidation.

And some savvy little guys are figuring out how to cash in on this trend.

Think about it: mega-funds don’t have the capacity to buy up homes one at a time. They just don’t have the time.

They need to buy homes in big volume… hundreds, even thousands at a time. And they’re willing to pay a premium if they can buy in bulk.

That’s why medium-sized funds like the one my friend runs in Texas are basically assembling large portfolios with the sole purpose of flipping everything to the mega-funds.

But smaller investors can play this game too.

Medium-sized funds need to buy in bulk as well. They don’t have the time or resources to buy up homes one at a time.

This creates a unique, niche opportunity for individual investors to assemble small portfolios, say, 10 properties, with the sole purpose of flipping to medium-sized funds.

We know some people already doing this. They essentially put several single-family homes under contract simultaneously (with only a small deposit on each home).

But, BEFORE they close, they make arrangements to flip the entire package of homes to a medium-sized fund through a double-escrow closing.

This structure guarantees a neat profit to the small investor while requiring limited up-front capital.

And like most great investment opportunities, it’s been very lucrative so far because very few people are doing it.

SovereignMan.com

Why a capital gains tax should capture the family home – Mark Lister. 

A capital gains tax is back on the agenda by the sound of it, if we see a change of government. This should worry property owners more than share investors, as they probably have more to lose.

Shares are misunderstood in New Zealand. Many people think the market is somewhat of a lottery, and the only way to do well is by being lucky enough to pick a few winners that go up in value.

The reality is quite different. Over the past 20 years’ NZ shares have delivered a return of 8.5 per cent per annum. However, most of that return is from boring old dividends rather than capital gains, 71 per cent, to be precise.

That’s important, because it means a capital gains tax would only impact the other bit. The vast bulk of the return already attracts income tax at the investors’ marginal rate. In short, share investors are already paying tax on more than two thirds of their return, which is probably a lot more than many property investors.

It’s harder to quantify how the returns for property are split between rental income and capital gain, but I suspect they are skewed much more toward the latter.

The gross dividend yield for the NZX 50 index is 5.5 per cent, whereas the average rental yield across New Zealand is just 3.8 per cent. In Auckland, it’s even lower at only 2.8 per cent, according to QV.

Contrary to popular belief, it seems shares are often the asset class of choice for investors looking for steady income. Property arguably holds more appeal to those after a quick capital gain and looking to make use of easy leverage.

Most share investors I come across are investing for income, rather than chasing big capital gains. They want a passive earnings stream that will grow steadily and keep pace with the cost of living.

Fortuitously, the local market is quite useful in this regard. It is dominated by predictable businesses that generate strong cash flows and pay a good portion of these out as dividends.

These companies have already paid tax on their profits so rather than be taxed a second time, investors get something called an imputation credit. This means the cash dividend they receive is, for the most part, tax paid. It’s actually a very good system, and we are one of the few countries to do things this way.

A capital gains tax might have some merit. It would certainly force people to focus more on the cash flows an asset generates, which theoretically should mean things are valued more appropriately.

It would need to be implemented sensibly though. That means making it free from exclusions (including the family home), otherwise such loopholes leave it open to exploitation and accounting trickery.

Labour leader Jacinda Arden, however, has ruled out including the family home in any capital gains tax policy.

It should also go hand-in hand with a corresponding decrease in our income tax rates. That’s the whole point right? To tilt things away from the wage and income earners, and shift more of the burden onto those focussing solely on capital gains?

– Mark Lister is Head of Private Wealth Research at Craigs Investment Partners. 

NZ Herald 

What Does Gareth Morgan Really Believe? – Bryan Bruce. 

Last Friday I sat down with Gareth Morgan to talk about why he had started The Opportunities Party and to try to gain a better understanding of his policies.

It’s the first of what I intend will be a series of conversations with politicians leading up to this year’s General Election.

I use the word “conversations” rather than “interviews” because as you will see the style is that I listen to what the person has to say for quite a long time before asking some searching questions.

If you don’t want to watch my  whole conversation with Gareth here are some highlights.

Gareth ultimately wants to give everyone, rich or poor, $200 a week unconditionally as a basic income. He acknowledges he cannot do this all in one go, so he wants to start with 18 to 25 year olds and families with young children.

He says no one would be short changed. If you are on a benefit that is more than $200 you would continue to get it.

Where does he propose to get the money for the UBI for young people from? By taxing the superannuation of over 65 year olds.

All pensioners would get the first $10,000 as of right, the next $10,000 would be subject to a means test. So if you are a wealthy oldie you won’t get the second $10,000 – that money instead would go to younger people as a UBI. 

He also proposes to tax people every year for living in a house they own because he wants to tax the total equity of a person i.e. a wealth tax.

During the conversation you will hear me raise a number of issues which I think are flaws in Gareth’s scheme – but he doesn’t.

For instance , if you are over 65 , receiving the superannuation and living in your own house you would have to pay tax each year on the estimated value of your property.

Now, unlike Gareth a great many superannuitants are not wealthy and will not be unable to pay the tax because they don’t earn enough each year.

No problem says Gareth.

The yearly house tax owed would roll over until you die. The trouble is, if you live for a long time then the State could end up owning your house and you would have nothing to leave to your children or grand children.

Do you think that’s fair?

Gareth thinks so, because he “doesn’t believe in inheritance”. 

He also says that he doesn’t have any preferred coalition partners. He will work with any government that will instigate some of his flagship policies.

I put it to him that if voters cast their vote for TOP then it is a vote for uncertainty (as it is with NZ First) because they will not know what government he is prepared cooperate with until after the election.

He doesn’t see that as a problem.

I of course do see it as a problem because I think voters want to have a very good idea of what kind of coalition government they are electing before they vote.

As you will hear – while I understand why Gareth wants to propose this radical tax reform I do think there are more than a few fish hooks in his plan –  some of which I raise with him on camera and some I didn’t because if people don’t buy into his main proposals then arguing about details that would then  never happen would have been a waste of his time and mine.

I appreciate Gareth took the time to have this conversation and  I have to say, I did enjoy it.

Bryan Bruce talks with Gareth Morgan

How to Use Fiscal and Monetary Policy to Make Us Rich Again – Tom Streithorst. 

The easiest way to return to Golden Age tranquility and equality is to empower fiscal policy.

During the post war Golden Age, from 1950 to 1973, US median real wages more than doubled. Today, they are lower than they were when Jimmy Carter was president. If you want an explanation why Americans are pessimistic about their future, that is as good a reason as any. In a recent article, Noah Smith examines the various causes of the slide in labor’s share of national income and finds most explanations wanting. With a blind spot common amongst economists he doesn’t even investigate the most obvious: politics.

Take a look at this chart. From the end of World War II, productivity rose steadily. Until the 1972 recession wages went up alongside it. Both dipped, both recovered and then, right around the time Ronald Reagan became President, productivity continued its upward trajectory but wages stopped following. If wages had continued to track productivity increases, the average American would earn twice as much as he does today and America would undoubtedly be a calmer and happier nation.

Collectively we are richer than we were 40 years ago, as we should be, considering the incredible advances in technology since them, but today the benefits of productivity increases no longer go to workers but rather to owners of stocks, bonds, and real estate. Wages don’t go up, but asset prices do. Rising productivity, that is to say the ability to make more goods and services with fewer inputs of labor and capital should make us all more prosperous. That it hasn’t can only be a distributional issue.

The timing suggests Ronald Reagan had something to do stagnating wages. That makes sense. Reagan cut taxes on the rich, deregulated the economy, eviscerated the labor unions and created the neoliberal order that still rules today. But perhaps an even more significant change is the tiny, technical and tedious shift from fiscal to monetary policy.

Government has two ways of affecting the economy: monetary and fiscal policy. The first involves the setting of interest rates, the other government tax and spending policy. Both fiscal and monetary policy work by putting money in people’s pockets so they will spend and thereby stimulate the economy but fiscal focuses on workers while monetary mostly benefits the already rich. Since Ronald Reagan, even under Democratic presidents, monetary has been the policy of choice. No wonder wages stopped going up but real estate, stock and bond prices have gone through the roof. During the Golden Age we shared the benefits of technological progress through wages gains. Since Reagan, we have allocated them through asset price inflation.

Fiscal policy, by increasing government spending, creates jobs and so raises wages even in the private sector. Monetary policy works mostly through the wealth effect. Lower interest rates almost automatically raise the value of stocks, bonds, and other real assets. Fiscal policy makes workers richer, monetary policy makes rich people richer. This, I suspect, explains better than anything else why monetary policy, even extreme monetary policy remains more respectable than even conventional monetary policy.

During the Golden Age, fiscal was king. Wages rose steadily and everybody was richer than their parents. Recessions were short and shallow. Economic policy makers’ primary task was insuring full unemployment. Anytime unemployment rose over a certain level, a government spending boost or tax cut would get the economy going again. And since firms were confident the government would never allow a steep downturn, they were ready and willing to invest in new technology and increased productive capacity. The economy grew faster (and more equitably) than it ever has before or since.

During the 1960s, Keynesian economists thought they could “fine tune” the economy, using Philips curve trade offs between inflation and unemployment. Stagflation in the 1970s shattered that optimism. Inflation went up but so did unemployment. New Classical economists decided in the long run, Keynesian stimulus couldn’t increase GDP, it could only accelerate inflation. Keynesianism stopped being cool. According to Robert Lucas, graduate students, would “snicker” whenever Keynesian concepts were mentioned.

In policy circles, Keynesians were replaced by monetarists, acolytes of Milton “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” Friedman. Volcker in America and Thatcher in Britain decided the only way to stomp out inflationary expectations was to cut the money supply. This, despite their best efforts, they were unable to do. Controlling the money supply proved almost impossible but monetarism gave Volcker and Thatcher the cover to manufacture the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

By raising interest rates until the economy screamed Volcker and Thatcher crushed investment and allowed unemployment to rise to levels unthinkable just a few years before. Businessmen, union leaders, and politicians pleaded for a rate cut but the central bankers were implacable. Ending inflationary expectations was worth the cost, they insisted. Volcker and Thatcher succeed in crushing inflation, not by cutting the money supply, but rather with an old fashioned Phillips curve trade off. Workers who fear for their jobs don’t ask for cost of living increases. Inflation was history.

The Federal Funds Rate hit 20% in 1980. Now even after a few hikes, it is barely over 1%. The story of the past 30 years is of the most stimulative monetary policy in history. Anytime the economy stumbled, interest rate cuts were the automatic response. Other than military Keynesianism and tax cuts, fiscal policy was relegated to the ash heap of history. Reagan of course combined tax cuts with increased military spending but traditional peacetime infrastructure stimulus was tainted by the 1970s stagflation and for policymakers remained beyond the pale.

Fiscal stimulus came back, momentarily, at the peak of the financial crisis. China’s investment binge combined with Obama’s stimulus package probably stopped the Great Recession from being as catastrophic as the Great Depression but by 2010, fiscal stimulus was replaced by its opposite, austerity. According to elementary macroeconomics, when the private sector is cutting back its spending, as it was still doing in the wake of the financial crisis, government should increase its spending to take up the slack. But Obama in America, Cameron in Britain and Merkel in the EU insisted that government cut spending, even as the private sector continued to retrench.

It is rather shocking, for anyone who has taken Econ 101 that in 2010, when the global economy had barely recovered from the worst recession since the Great Depression, politicians and pundits were calling for lower deficits, higher taxes and less government spending even as monetary policy was maxed out. Rates were already close to zero so central banks had no more room to cut.

So, instead of going to the tool box and taking out their tried and tested fiscal kit, which would have created jobs and had the added benefit of improving infrastructure, policymakers instead invented Quantitative Easing, which in essence is monetary policy on steroids. Central Banks promised to buy bonds from the private sector, increasing their price, thereby shoveling money towards bond owners. The idea was that by buying safe assets they would push the private sector to buy riskier assets and by increasing bank reserves they would stimulate lending but the consequence of all the Quantitative Easings is that all of the benefits of growth since the financial crisis have gone to the top 5% and most of that to the top 0.1%.

A feature or a bug? The men who rule the planet are happy that most of us think economics is boring, that we would much rather read about R Kelly’s sexual predilections than about the difference between fiscal and monetary policy but were we to remember that spending money on infrastructure or health care or education would create jobs, raise wages, and create demand which the economy craves, we would have a much more equitable world.

One cogent objection to stimulative fiscal policy is that it has the potential to be inflationary. Indeed the fundamental goal of macroeconomic policy is to match the economy’s demand to its ability to supply. If fiscal policy gets out of hand (as arguably it did in the 1960s when Lyndon Johnson tried to fund both his Great Society and the Vietnam war without raising taxes), demand could outstrip supply, creating inflation. But should that happen, we have the monetary tools to cure any inflationary pressure. Rates today are still barely above zero. Should inflation threaten, central banks can raise interest rates and nip it in the bud.

Fiscal and monetary policy both have a place in policymakers’ toolkits. Perhaps the ideal combination would be to use fiscal to stimulate the economy and monetary to cool it down. Both Brexit and Trump should have told elites that unless they share the benefits of growth, a populist onslaught could threaten all our prosperity. The easiest way to return to Golden Age tranquility and equality is to empower fiscal policy to invest in our future and create jobs today.

2017 August 6

Evonomics.com