Bernard Hickey 's Opinion

Bernard is an economics columnist for the NZ Herald

Bernard Hickey: Tool box for insurance of nation

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Insurance is at the top of everyone's minds after the recent earthquakes in Christchurch.

But we rarely think of New Zealand as needing a national insurance policy against a global economic disaster.

UCLA economics professor Sebastian Edwards raised this idea at this week's Macroeconomic Imbalances conference as a way to shift the debate about New Zealand's vulnerabilities.

New Zealand's policymakers are stuck in a trap that seems to end in either electoral defeat or national bankruptcy.

Tough political decisions are needed to fix our economic problems, but politicians are reluctant to suggest or enact them for fear of alienating voters.

The Government has already been advised by the Tax Working Group and the Savings Working Group that it needs to quickly return to surpluses to increase national savings and reduce the pressure on interest rates and our currency, and therefore encourage a refocus to production and exports.

But most suggestions involve serious political pain, including the end of handouts such as Working For Families, interest-free student loans and cheap doctors visits, the imposition of a capital gains or land tax, and an extension of the retirement age.

Any one or a combination of these is seen as electorally suicidal.

So we seem locked in to an inevitable drift towards the financial crisis where our international creditors force New Zealand to make the necessary changes.

We only need to look at what has happened to Greece and Ireland to see how painful such enforced remedial action could become.

There, politicians and voters are having to swallow bucketloads of dead rats to ensure they can keep borrowing, including tax increases, massive public spending cuts and forced fire sales of public assets.

But as Edwards pointed out, New Zealand is different because we are less vulnerable than the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) to an immediate crisis.

Although our net foreign debt is almost as high as in the PIGS, the debt is mostly private, held through our banks rather than by the government.

Also, our floating exchange rate and the fact most of our debt is issued in New Zealand dollars helps protect us if our creditors turn off the taps.

The resulting slump in our currency wouldn't increase the debt in New Zealand dollar terms and it would help us export and inflate our way out from under the debt, although it would bring higher interest rates.

So Edwards is right in saying New Zealand has some time and tools to fix our vulnerabilities. How, then, do we convince ourselves to take some short-term political and economic pain to help?

Edwards suggested we think of these measures as a type of insurance. People will forego consumption now if they think it protects them in the future.

He suggested a variety of insurance premiums could be "paid". They included building our foreign reserves so if our currency collapsed these reserves were worth more in New Zealand dollar terms and could be used to boost the currency.

That could involve increasing the size of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund with the proceeds of Budget surpluses. The Government could also impose a tax on foreign capital inflows or a tax on wholesale financial transactions.

Also, the Reserve Bank could impose various capital controls on banks that reduce our ability to borrow offshore cheaply. All these are sensible insurance payments. So why can't we see these changes as a necessary cost rather than optional self-inflicted pain?

- Herald on Sunday

Bernard Hickey

Bernard is an economics columnist for the NZ Herald

Bernard Hickey is the publisher of Hive News, a Wellington-based political and economic subscription news email service. He also writes for Interest.co.nz and appears regularly on Radio New Zealand, Radio Live, TVNZ and TV3. He has been a financial journalist for 25 years, having worked for Reuters, the Financial Times Group and Fairfax Media.

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