Former Economics Editor of the NZ Herald

Brian Fallow: Quake levy wrong answer for NZ

Taxpayers will shoulder a heavy load in the rebuilding of Christchurch. Photo / Geoff Sloan
Taxpayers will shoulder a heavy load in the rebuilding of Christchurch. Photo / Geoff Sloan

Kick them while they are down is no one's idea of how to administer first aid.

Nor should it be anyone's idea of how to minister to an already rather frail economy which has suffered a shock of the magnitude of last week's earthquake.

Yet we have heard perverse calls for the Government to respond by imposing a new tax and cynical calls for it take a machete to spending programmes on which people (always other people) depend to a greater or lesser degree.

Never mind how fragile and halting the recovery is. Now we have an earthquake to pay for.

The response of both the previous Government and the present one to the global financial crisis and accompanying recession was to loosen fiscal policy.

They cut taxes and they let the automatic stabilisers work. As revenue took a hit and more people landed in the social safety net, operating surpluses turned to deficits and public debt rose (from a very low base).

They let the Crown's balance sheet take the strain. It was the appropriate policy then and it is again.

Let's start with what we don't know.

We don't know the financial cost of the damage caused by the earthquake. The human cost, of course, is incalculable.

All we have at this point is the most preliminary ball-park guesses.

Nor do we know how that cost will be apportioned: How much will fall on the people of Christchurch and Lyttelton, both directly and as ratepayers, how much on the Earthquake Commission and its reinsurers, how much on private insurers and how much on taxpayers.

It is clear, however, that the cost to taxpayers will be substantial.

Most of it is likely to be the cost of repairing infrastructure. Prime Minster John Key indicated at his post-Cabinet press conference this week that the normal practice of splitting the costs of of repairing locally owned infrastructure 50:50 with local government would not be feasible in this case.

New Zealand already has an infrastructure deficit, a backlog of work needing to be done.

The infrastructure deficit has just got a lot bigger and most of the increase is urgent.

It is a statement of the obvious that priorities will have to be reordered.

Apart from anything else the country has only so much physical capacity to undertake such work.

Now would be a good time to figure out how to increase that capacity.

And as ANZ chief economist Cameron Bagrie has argued, it may take some creative thinking by policymakers to ensure that people with the relevant skills do in fact go south.

We do not normally take a strict pay-as-you-go approach to infrastructure spending. It is orthodox and logical to spread the cost of long-lived assets over future as well as current taxpayers, by borrowing to pay for them.

At this point in the argument the bogeymen are invoked,"bond vigilantes" and the credit ratings agencies.

Well there is not much sign from the bond market yet that the Government is bumping up against limits to its ability to borrow.

In fact even with a cash deficit of $15.6 billion to fund this year it has been able to get bond issues away at yields that are low by New Zealand historical standards.

There has been one bond tender since the February 22 quake. It saw yields for 10-year debt rise a less-than-meteoric 8 basis points to 5.57 per cent, while two-year money got significantly cheaper, falling to 3.65 per cent from 3.88 per cent in the previous week's tender.

Such a sanguine reaction makes sense, after all, and not just because there is not a lot of good information on the fiscal fallout from the quake to go on.

New Zealand Government debt is low by international standards and so therefore is the share of the taxpayer's dollar pre-empted by servicing that debt. As Standard & Poor's noted late last week, before the quake the forward track for Government debt would have seen it peak at just half the median level for AA-rated sovereigns.

The peak will now be later and higher, but there ought to be significant headroom there.

There is a world of difference between an increase in debt which is structural and reflects a lack of political will for a government to live within its means, and one which arises from a one-off shock.

Finance Minister Bill English nonetheless had a point when he said on Tuesday that New Zealand's external debt was too high. "We want to get government debt under control because it is [now] what is driving that external debt," he said. "We can move a little. We can deal with a bit more debt in the shorter term."

English added, however, that the Government intends to rebuild Canterbury "roughly within the debt parameters that currently apply, because it would make us more vulnerable to the next shock if we push outside them."

It depends what he means by "roughly" and "a bit more debt".

But he is at risk of looking like someone who has just had a monsoon bucketful of water dumped on him and says: "Got to get back to saving for a rainy day."

Key is right to be dismissive of the idea of an ad hoc tax akin to the Australian flood levy.

If levied on the same basis - half a cent in the dollar of income for those earning between $50,000 and $100,000 or 1c for those earning above $100,000 - a back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates it would bring in a bit less than $500 million. About half would come from those earning between $50,000 and $100,000.

There is an opportunity cost to such an impost. It is money they cannot spend on consumption or investment elsewhere in the economy.

The economy started this year without a whole lot of momentum.

Export prices are at all-time highs, true, but many farmers are using the money to pay down debt and the flipside of the commodity boom is more and more of people's incomes is soaked up by such necessities as food and fuel.

For firms chasing the consumer's discretionary dollar an ad hoc levy is the last thing they need.

Australia does not have a national Flood Commission akin to the Earthquake Commission here, which has a levy income precisely to prefund events like this, and its economy is in a far less fragile state than ours is.

As for calls for cuts to programmes like Working for Families or student loans, the case for such policy changes is no better or worse than it was before the earthquake.

They should be considered on their long-term merits. They should not be trundled through under cover of an all-purpose excuse, the cost of Canterbury's misfortune.

- NZ Herald

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Former Economics Editor of the NZ Herald

Brian Fallow is a former economics editor for the New Zealand Herald. A Southlander happily transplanted to Wellington, he has been a journalist since 1984 and has covered the economy and related areas of public policy for the Herald since 1995. Why the economy? Because it is where we all live and because the forces at work in it can really mess up people's lives if we are not careful.

Read more by Brian Fallow

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